Chinese businessman William Xie is enjoying a belated holiday, which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic for three years.

His original plan — after visiting multiple countries in Europe — was to travel to Australia.

“I was really looking forward to a few trips to Australia later this year, as the return tickets got so much cheaper than before,” Mr Xie said.

However, he’s now cancelled that part of his break because his tourist visa application was rejected.

“When I told my friends my visa was rejected, they all thought I was joking,” he said.

Frustrated holiday-makers are also complaining about Australian tourist visa refusals on Chinese social media. 

One woman, “Zhang Zhang”, wrote that her tourist visa had been refused, twice, by authorities but no specific reason had been provided.

“I don’t understand. Since when has travelling become so hard?” she asked.

Mr Xie said that some of his friends were planning to apply for tourist visas to Australia as well, but cancelled their travel plans after they learned that his visa was rejected.

“I’ve supplied the same set of documents to apply for visas to Britain, France and Australia. Only Australia said, ‘No’,” he said.

“None of my friends understand.”

Rise in visa refusal inquiries, migration agent says

Sean Dong says it can’t be hard to understand why visas are being refused.()

As anecdotes of Australian tourist visa refusals circulate in China, the ABC asked the Home Affairs Department if current visa refusal rates for Chinese travellers were higher now than before the pandemic.

“The distinction between refusal rates pre COVID-19 and post China re-opening their borders to international travel should not be directly compared, as they reflect different time periods,” a spokesperson said.

There have been no changes to visitor visa criteria or policies for tourists from China since the pandemic prompted international border closures, the spokesperson added.

The number of Chinese tourists visiting Australia since China re-opened its borders has not bounced back as quickly as the industry had hoped.()

Sean Dong — a registered migration agent and lawyer in Melbourne — said that, in his experience, the decision to grant tourist visas was very subjective.

“We are having [many] more inquiries [from China] than before regarding tourist visa refusal,” Mr Dong said.

“My feeling is the difference [in the refusal rate] is roughly 30 to 50 per cent.”

Mr Dong questioned whether visa refusals were increasing because more tourists were staying in Australia once they arrived.

“I guess it has something to do with many [people] coming with a tourist visa, but later seeking asylum and staying to work,” Mr Dong said.

Visa refused despite $150,000 in account 

Many Chinese travel enthusiasts apply for visas to multiple countries ahead of time and it is key to their travel plans.()

Ms Chen — a college student who lives in Shanghai — also had a tourist visa application to Australia declined in February. 

“I wanted to travel somewhere during the school holiday break in July,” Ms Chen said, asking to only use her surname for privacy reasons.

However, Ms Chen said she was told she didn’t have “enough links” with China to prove she would return home after her planned holiday to Australia. 

Mr Xie said his visa application was refused because he was told his business — which he founded after graduating in 2021 — had not run long enough to prove he had stable employment in China.

The number of outbound tourists from China is still recovering after the pandemic.()

Despite his start-up being relatively new, Mr Xie said he provided a three-month bank statement to Australian authorities that showed he had more than 700,000 yuan ($151,915) in his account to prove he was genuinely planning to visit Australia for a holiday.

“I had never expected a ‘No’ for a tourist visa and felt humiliated,” Mr Xie said.

“I don’t know what to think of this. They are probably doing a lucky draw to grant visas to only very few people.”

He sent an angry letter to the Australian visa centre in China’s southern city of Guangzhou, but later decided not to pursue the issue because it was too time-consuming.

Instead, Mr Xie decided just to enjoy a holiday in Europe, and has now travelled to Paris, Munich, Vienna, Milan, Venice and Zurich.

Visas are key to Chinese tourists’ travel plans 

Many Chinese travel enthusiasts apply for tourist visas to multiple countries ahead of time. Securing a visa informs subsequent travel plans and bookings.

Also, most Chinese families can only travel on public holidays and during school holidays, so having an approved visa ahead of the fixed travelling period is also vital, explained Curtin University’s Cheng Mingming.

“The uncertainties [of getting an Australian visa] is probably why we are seeing so many discussions on social media,” he said.

Professor Cheng — who specialises in the digital economy and tourism at Curtin University — said getting a tourist visa for travelling to Australia had been a deterrent for Chinese tourists. 

“Thailand doesn’t require a visa [for Chinese tourists]. Singapore will issue a visa in only two to three days,” he said.

“Chinese tourists will choose these places to make sure their holiday plans can go ahead.”

However, Professor Cheng also pointed out that China’s tourism industry was still suffering from the impacts of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, including reduced flight numbers and routes.

“It may take until later this year, or next year, for the number of [Chinese] tourists to slowly recover,” he said.

Professor Cheng Mingming says there are multiple reasons Chinese tourists have not returned to Australia.()

Before the pandemic, the number of outbound tourists from China in 2019 was about 155 million people and accounted for nearly one-fifth of the world’s tourism expenditure, according to Chinese state media.

Beijing has predicted that, by the end of 2023, the number of outbound tourists will have returned to 70 per cent of what it was before COVID-19.

The number of Chinese tourists visiting Australia since China re-opened its borders has not bounced back as quickly as the industry had hoped. 

According to the latest data, only 40,000 Chinese visitors arrived in Australia in February. 

Tourism Australia (TA) — the government agency responsible for attracting international visitors — saw that number “as an encouraging sign”.

Managing director Phillipa Harrison said TA expected it would take time for Chinese tourist numbers to bounce back to 2019 levels.

“This was up from [fewer] than 15,000 in January and shows Australia remains a top destination for Chinese travellers,” Ms Harrison said.

Recently, on the Gold Coast, a delegation of 133 Chinese travel agency bosses and industry wholesalers visited for the Australian Tourism Exchange, — TA’s flagship industry conference, to make deals with Australian tourism operators.

However, Australia is still not included as a country on China’s Approved Destination Status (ADS) list, meaning group tours from China cannot visit Australia.

Meanwhile, 60 other countries are on that list.

Zhang Cheng — a Melbourne-based tourism agent serving Chinese-speaking groups — said he had multiple group bookings every day to various tourist destinations around Melbourne back in 2019.

However, right now, he said, it was sometimes just one booking per week.

“It’s not comparable,” Mr Zhang said.

“There are tourists coming from China now but most of them are here visiting friends and families, not just for sightseeing.”