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China overturns decades of bureaucracy to relax visa rules and allow short-break visitors to experience Beijing

Tourists in 2013 will be able to experience Red China without being entangled in red tape

The great wall of visa rules surrounding tourism to China is about to be dismantled - at least for short-break visitors to the capital, Beijing.

In a move that represents a cultural revolution overturning decades of bureaucracy, tourists in 2013 will be able to experience Red China without getting entangled in red tape.

The Xinhua news agency has reported that citizens of 45 countries, including the UK, will be allowed to visit the capital for up to 72 hours with only cursory formalities. From New Year’s Day, tourists holding confirmed reservations for a flight departing within three days can get a “transit without visa” stamp upon arrival at Beijing’s Capital airport.

The move is intended to boost tourism, and in particular to poach some of the stopover travellers who currently take a short break in Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong between Europe and Australasia. Wang Yue, deputy director of Beijing’s tourist board, said “A relaxed visa policy is common practice to boost the inbound tourist market”.

At present, anyone seeking to break their journey in the Chinese capital is obliged to apply for a visa in advance. Stuart Whittington, Head of Product at Wendy Wu Tours, said: “Short-stay visas typically cost around £100 and take a couple of weeks to be processed. This new regulation removes the hassle and cost of transiting in Beijing.”

The tourism authorities predict visitor numbers will double to 10 million annually as a result of the relaxation. The new policy applies only to visitors to Beijing, the base of Air China. If it proves successful, it is likely to be adopted in Shanghai and Guangzhou, hubs for China Eastern and China Southern respectively. All three airlines offer cut-price tickets from London to Australia.

A spot-check of fares from Heathrow to Sydney for mid-January shows Air China offering the cheapest deals in the market, at around £1,100 return via Beijing - £400 less than British Airways via Singapore on the same dates.

James Jones, Asia product manager for DialAFlight, said: “This is a great opportunity for the consumer to stop off somewhere new and exciting, without the inconvenience of applying for a Chinese visa. It will provide a welcome alternative to the more popular stopover destinations.”

Travellers taking advantage of the relaxed bureaucracy will still have to tackle some red tape. They will be obliged to register with the police within 24 hours, and cannot wander far. Ji Lixia, a senior immigration official, is quoted by the Xinhua agency as saying: “Foreign visitors must be reminded that they are not permitted to leave Beijing to other Chinese cities during the 72 hours.” It is thought that a day trip to the nearest section of the Great Wall of China, at Badaling, will be permitted.

Until the 1970s, the People’s Republic was effectively closed to Western visitors. Tourism was pioneered by Neil Taylor of Regent Holidays, who led the first group of British travellers to China in October 1976 – shortly after the downfall of the “Gang of Four”. Each participant paid £1,000 (the equivalent of £6,600 today).

Today Mr Taylor said: “We followed a revolutionary route – arriving in Beijing, and visiting Mao’s birthplace and the starting point for the Long March, then continuing to Nanjing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, where we left for Hong Kong.”

In the early 1980s, the student travel organisation STA sold the first “backpacker” trips to Beijing, but these were strictly regulated with accommodation in specified hotels and only officially sanctioned transport. The first Lonely Planet guide to China was published in 1984.

At that time, said Neil Taylor: “You ambled down small, muddy lanes – now they’ve been replaced by six-lane highways flanked with skyscrapers. A transformation that took the West 150 years took China only 25.”

Beijing’s newly liberal attitude is in marked contrast to some other large countries. India demands visas from all British tourists – a process that takes 10 working days for postal applications, and costs £30. Consequently, few travellers connecting in Delhi or Mumbai to other Asian destinations opt to stop over.

Russia also demands visas from tourists, except for passengers on cruises to St Petersburg – who are permitted to stay up to 72 hours without formality.

Visas for North Korea are notoriously difficult to obtain, with most tourists collecting them en route in Beijing. From January, they will at least be spared the trouble of obtaining a Chinese visa.