Barrier to entry at China’s museums may translate to tourism losses (2024)

Foreign visitors find barrier to entry at China’s museums, which may translate to losses for tourism industry

The National Museum of China, which houses the richest collection of Chinese cultural relics, has long been a top attraction for domestic and overseas tourists.

But, to the detriment of foreign visitors, they must pre-book by choosing a time slot and registering their information through the museum’s Chinese-language “mini-programme” – an application that functions within the WeChat super app.

This and other similar systems were developed during the Covid-19 pandemic when there were no international tourists in China. The museum’s English website provides a link for bookings, but it is now defunct.

Other popular tourist attractions, such as the Shaanxi History Museum in China’s ancient imperial capital, have similar issues. While its website advises visitors to book their visit through either WeChat or a link to an online ticketing system, the latter leads nowhere.

China’s technological revolution has made life for its own population more convenient than ever before, but that added ease may now be inadvertently skewed towards the domestic population – to the potential disadvantage of foreign tourists – and those issues are showing up in museums.

Barrier to entry at China’s museums may translate to tourism losses (1)


Beijing Palace Museum to triple number of artefacts on display with expanded exhibition centre

Beijing Palace Museum to triple number of artefacts on display with expanded exhibition centre

Most major attractions in China require visitors to make advance appointments through mini-programmes, which means visitors must have a WeChat account and a grasp of how it works, as well as basic Chinese language proficiency, to plan their trip.

As tourism rebounds, global hub Shanghai has taken the lead to better accommodate foreign visitors. While the Shanghai Museum requires online reservations via the super app – with passports and foreign permanent resident identity cards accepted as valid papers – the booking pages on the mini-programme are also available in English.

The neighbouring Museum of Art Pudong offers a semi-bilingual mini-programme that non-Chinese users could navigate with a little guessing. Recently, it has cancelled the prior booking requirement. Similarly, visitors can purchase tickets in person at the Power Station of Art, another landmark building in Huangpu, while its WeChat interface remains Chinese-only.

Many existing prerequisites could be “discouraging” and prove “a significant barrier” for those on a short stay, said William Figueroa, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who visited Beijing recently.

While he was able to tour Tiananmen Square and the Palace Museum, where a select range of Iranian and Saudi Arabian artefacts were on show, Figueroa could not visit the campus at Peking University, where in-demand time slots are released seven days in advance.

“Since [advance booking] is a new regulation, many travellers attempt to make the trip unaware and end up leaving disappointed,” said Figueroa, who did not know he had to snap up tickets to his alma mater the week before visiting. “While WeChat is very convenient if you manage to set it up, it is notoriously difficult for foreigners for a variety of reasons.”

Furthermore, in this highly digitised realm, text messages are the primary login and sign-up mechanism for websites, services, Wi-fi and mobile applications – most of which only work with Chinese phone numbers. For locals, everything is just an authentication code away, while for foreigners it is more difficult.

To get a phone number in China, users must visit a telecoms retail store with valid identification documents, and foreigners must bring their Chinese visa.

However, Figueroa said there were workarounds for most issues, and the Chinese public was largely “aware and sympathetic to the problems foreigners face” in the country. On his trip, he relied on the kindness of locals and the flexibility staff members gave him.

“For at least one site where I was not able to get a booking in time, I simply made an online booking for a later date, went in person early in the morning, and explained my situation – they were happy to move up my reservation,” Figueroa said.

Barrier to entry at China’s museums may translate to tourism losses (2)

He said it was understandable that China’s tourism industry was prioritising domestic travellers while foreign tourism was yet to rebound to pre-Covid levels.

According to Hong Kong legislator Adrian Pedro Ho King-hong, there are unjustified narratives about China curbing international visitors, when the reality was that its digital infrastructure had not yet caught up to the return of international tourism in the post-pandemic era.

“It’s definitely foolish to think that China does not want foreign visitors – that’s just nonsense. No country in the world does not want visitors, but when [mechanisms] are not as friendly, and comparisons are drawn with other places, I can see why people feel frustrated.”

Ho suggested that tourists give museums feedback following their visit and identify areas for improvement, such as the bilingual capabilities of staff. He noted that translators were often present at large exhibitions.

In addition to daily guided tours, the Shanghai Museum provides audio devices in Chinese, English, French, Japanese, German, Korean, Spanish and Italian that provide a guide to the museum’s permanent collections.

Figueroa said while new exhibits at the Forbidden City had “enough English [information] to be comprehensible to a visitor”, they were often limited to the beginning and end of a display while the in-depth English descriptions of individual objects was lacking.

“I was even discouraged from visiting the new Museum of the Chinese Communist Party by the staff because, as they put it, everything in there is mostly written in Chinese and will not be very interesting to a foreigner,” Figueroa added.

Sharing Figueroa’s concerns, Zoon Ahmed Khan, a Beijing-based researcher at the Centre for China and Globalisation, said many key destinations lacked staff and tour guides who could communicate in English, even though the quality of displays and bilingual signs at museums had improved under Beijing’s direction.

“Language barriers exist everywhere, but a visible desire to address it matters more, especially given fierce regional competition for tourists,” said Khan, adding that if left unaddressed, China’s soft power potential could be curtailed.

“For China, international tourism above all is an opportunity to promote its culture, history, economic progress, as well as the Chinese society’s dynamism and hospitality, and showcase its reality against prejudiced media coverage, particularly from the West.”

Museums are not the only sites with barriers to entry by foreigners. Other conveniences enjoyed by Chinese nationals in top-tier cities may also be unfriendly to non-residents. Since most tickets must be bought with a Chinese identity card, ticket scanners have been largely replaced with smart card readers. Locals need only their ID to move around, but for foreigners there is a manual process.

Khan further argued that overseas visitors unaccustomed to providing a range of personal information for basic activities may be turned off from visiting.

“The custom of gathering detailed information on travellers, which expanded during the pandemic, is likely to trigger discomfort to an extent, especially among Westerners whose standards of privacy protection are different,” said Khan, adding that these perceptions were contrary to Beijing’s objective of promoting China as a relaxing and welcoming destination.

Similarly, while the digitisation of payment methods allowed China to increase the quality, safety standards and accessibility of its services, it could also appear “daunting” to visitors who did not have the time to familiarise themselves with the Chinese way, according to Khan.

“China’s cashless society, while offering advantages for local users, serves equally as a barrier for newcomers. When cash and other international alternatives aren’t accepted by vendors, hotels, restaurants or taxis alike, a short-term traveller will naturally feel frustrated,” she said.

However, China’s top-tier infrastructure and visa-free arrangements with its counterparts remained attractive, Khan added. Addressing the on-the-ground barriers for tourists would deliver geopolitical benefits that “go beyond economic gain”.

Tings Chak, the Beijing-based art director at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, said making domestic tourists a priority allowed hundreds of millions of Chinese to travel across the country and enjoy activities such as museum-hopping for the first time.

“This is coupled with the government’s post-Covid dual circulation policy, to stimulate domestic consumption rather than relying primarily on exports to foreign markets to drive economic growth, and that includes promoting domestic tourism,” Chak said.

Chak, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto, said international tourists must be catered to because of their potential to become “informal cultural ambassadors” at home.

“Living in this ‘new cold war’ moment, with increasing disinformation targeting China, it’s important that the negative experiences that tourists may have in China – often for the lack of appropriate or accessible infrastructure – aren’t inadvertently contributing to the anti-China sentiment and climate,” she said.

Chak said that making a positive impression on tourists had “effects that extend beyond the individual”, and authorities should ensure visitors were aware of the ways in which their experiences were being improved.

Barrier to entry at China’s museums may translate to tourism losses (3)


Tourism trouble: post-pandemic hurdles of China travel

Tourism trouble: post-pandemic hurdles of China travel

“The government has some recognition of the barriers that deter people from wanting to come and travel in China. For example, there have been a series of policies regarding visas, including waivers, visa-free transit and eased extension and renewal processes,” Chak said.

Hong Kong’s New People’s Party, which Ho belongs to, has also received complaints from locals about the widening technological gap between the city and the mainland, which runs on cashless payments and an identity verification system that often requires a local phone number and/or locally issued documents.

Ho said mainland authorities were “working really, really hard” to address the concerns of travellers from Hong Kong and overseas.

“China values the experience of foreign visitors, because they know that the perception of a country often comes from individuals’ experience during the time they spend within it, whether it’s for leisure or for work,” Ho said. “They do want to make sure every visitor has a pleasant experience in China.”

Ho said most avid travellers would be able and willing to adapt to China’s system, as they do in other places with unique lifestyles and practices.

“A lot of people were satisfied with their overall experience in China – [in situations] where a cashless system wasn’t as friendly to foreigners, manual service was provided.”

Barrier to entry at China’s museums may translate to tourism losses (4)

Barrier to entry at China’s museums may translate to tourism losses (2024)


Why has China become such an important source of international tourists? ›

The emergence of a newly rich middle class and an easing of restrictions on movement by the Chinese authorities are both fueling this travel boom. China has become one of world's largest outbound tourist markets.

Does China rely on tourism? ›

Amid the challenges confronting China's economy in 2024, inbound tourism has emerged as an avenue for bolstering economic growth. Drawing international tourists to spend in China translates to a net export of services, injecting added value into the nation's economic ecosystem.

What are the negative impacts of tourism in China? ›

Mass tourism offers some advantages but brings more disadvantages like environmental degradation, a lot of problems with resource allocation, poor working conditions and the most important disadvantage is that tourists aren't interested in Chinese culture. packaged up and sold by the occupying Chinese regime.

Is it safe to travel to China right now? ›

Summary: Reconsider travel to Mainland China due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions. Exercise increased caution when traveling to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws.

What nationality visits China the most? ›

Visitors coming from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan account for 69.8 percent of China's total. When adjusted to exclude these locations, the number of visitors is closer to 48 million. In 2018, Myanmar, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, and the United States led the way as top sources of visitors into China.

What city in China has the most tourists? ›

Top 10 Most Visited Cities in China
  • Beijing: The capital city, home to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.
  • Shanghai: China's biggest city, known for its skyline and The Bund.
  • Xi'an: Famous for the Terracotta Army and ancient city walls.
  • Guangzhou: A bustling metropolis with Cantonese culture and cuisine.
Mar 26, 2024

How is tourism in China now? ›

Yet a key exception is emerging in the form of domestic tourism. Last week's five-day public holiday to mark labour day saw 295 million trips made within China, according to figures from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. This was 28% higher than pre-pandemic figures recorded in 2019.

Why is China such a popular tourist destination? ›

Most Impressive Ancient Heritage

China's awesome and monumental ancient treasures exceed all other countries for size and number — from ancient palaces to the Great Wall, city walls, buried armies, canals, pagodas, temples, and giant Buddhas. See: The Seven Ancient Wonders of China. China's World Heritage.

Why is China so important to the global economy? ›

China is a big deal: it singlehandedly accounts for more than 18% of the world's GDP (gross domestic product). Across the world's 10 biggest economies it is the top trading partner for eight and a top five partner for the remaining two.

Why did China become an attractive destination? ›

China becomes an attraction destination for investment by foreign MNCs in the 19th and 20th centuries because :i Wages were relatively low in countries like China. ii This is because of the low-cost structure of the Chinese economy most importantly its low wages.

What is China's major man made tourist attraction? ›

The Great Wall is the largest man-made project in the world. The complete route is over 20,000 km, stretching from the east seaside to the west desert in northern China, winding up and down across mountains and plateaus like a dragon.


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