Beijing (AFP) -
China will once again start issuing a range of visas to foreigners as of Wednesday, the country's foreign ministry said, in a major easing of travel restrictions in place since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The move marks the latest step towards reopening China to the outside world, as Beijing breaks with the strict zero-Covid strategy that defined its pandemic response until a few months ago.
In addition to new visas being reviewed and approved, those issued before March 28, 2020 that remain valid will once again allow entry to China, said a notice posted Tuesday on a social media account affiliated with the foreign ministry's consular affairs bureau.
Similar notices appeared on the websites of several overseas Chinese missions, including its embassies in the United States and France.
The updated policy will also allow for the resumption of visa-free travel for those arriving on cruise ships to Shanghai as well as for certain tourist groups from Hong Kong, Macau and countries within the ASEAN regional grouping, the notice said.
The move would 'further facilitate the exchange of Chinese and foreign personnel', it added.
China received 65.7 million international visitors in 2019, according to data from the UN World Tourism Organization, before sealing itself off from the rest of the world during the pandemic.
While most countries started fully reopening their economies and welcoming international travellers earlier, China only began emerging from its strict Covid-19 containment strategy in late 2022, after rare demonstrations against President Xi Jinping's signature policy broke out across the country.
Those protests in late November expanded into calls for more political freedoms, with some even calling for Xi to resign, the most widespread opposition to communist rule since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.
- Abrupt reversal -
In early December, Chinese authorities effectively ended the regime of mass testing, lockdowns and long quarantines -- but the abrupt reversal led to a spike in Covid cases.
Beijing announced in late December that inbound travellers to the country would no longer need to quarantine from January 8, but kept in place visa restrictions on foreigners.
At the time, Beijing said it would 'continue to adjust its visa policy for foreigners visiting China in a scientific and dynamic manner in accordance with... the epidemic situation'.
It also then resumed issuing Chinese passports for 'tourism' or 'overseas visits of friends'.
With cases surging in China around the New Year, several countries -- notably Japan and South Korea -- reimposed restrictions on Chinese visitors, provoking a tit-for-tat response from Beijing.
As cases waned in China, both sides subsequently eased those restrictions.
The announcement that China will resume issuing visas to foreigners comes on the heels of an important session of the country's rubber-stamp parliament, which saw Xi confirmed to a third term as president and his close ally Li Qiang named premier.
Li on Monday admitted that achieving the country's economic growth target of 'around five percent' would be 'no easy task'.
China posted just three percent growth last year, missing its stated target of around 5.5 percent by a wide margin as the economy strained under the twin impact of strict Covid policies and a property crisis.