On Wednesday, the U.S. will begin offering Chinese tourists and business people multiple-entry visas valid for up to 10 years. The change, announced by President Obama in Beijing, is designed to help the American economy and build goodwill in China. China's Foreign Ministry says it will reciprocate.
The first impression most Chinese have of the U.S. government comes when they apply for a visa. For years, they've dreaded the process.
"It was humiliating," says Mei Zhang, who runs WildChina.com, which caters to sophisticated travelers coming to China and has another business taking well-to-do Chinese overseas. "If anyone has experienced the Beijing cold winter, you stood out there in the street for three hours waiting to get into the [U.S.] Embassy."
Then, Chinese often had to convince a visa officer they weren't secretly planning to emigrate to America.
According to the U.S. Department of State, wait times for interviews — which once could last for a month or longer — have improved in recent years and now average less than a week. In fiscal year 2014, the U.S. processed nearly 2 million applications from Chinese for nonimmigrant visas.
Sparing people from having to reapply for a new visa each year will make travel even easier, Zhang says.
"This has removed a major obstacle," she says. "You can go back to America again and again."
Ryan Becker, director of communications for Visit California, a nonprofit tourism promotion group, says Chinese tourists are the fastest-growing group of foreign visitors to the state. He says they spent nearly $2 billion there last year — more than tourists from any other country.
"We're very excited by the changes," Becker says of the visa extension. "It's the kind of smart policy that we think makes sense on many different levels."
Becker says Chinese visits to California were already expected to double by 2017, and that the change in the visa policy will mean even more tourists and more spending.