French President Emmanuel Macron is making his first state visit to China from Monday to Wednesday this week, in what both French businesses and Chinese authorities hope will be a productive visit in promoting trade and improved EU-China relations. While certainly not explicitly focused on tourism, the visit brings with it the ambitions of tourism stakeholders in France such as Airbus and Accor to China to strike new deals and strengthen business relationships.

Airbus hopes to sell an additional 100 planes to China, and an announcement thereof would follow the pattern of how China likes to announce big purchases in conjunction with state visits. In November during U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to the country, the Chinese government “announced” the purchase of 300 Boeing aircraft—despite the fact that the deal had been finalized long before the state visit.

There’s a lot that can be said about tourism relations between France and China. As far as tourism exports go, France is the big winner—with France the most visited European destination among Chinese travelers and a significant beneficiary of Chinese travelers’ fascination with foreign goods and European luxury shopping. While China’s domestic tourism industry is huge, it still lags behind as a tourism destination—particularly for leisure travelers—internationally. This rings true for French travelers as well.

Tourism trade is an important part of the state visit

So, in the spirit of reciprocity, what should France do in terms of its tourism relationship with China?

Easy, according to an editorial published in Global Times, the international arm of China’s massively circulated People’s Daily.

“Apart from trade issues, jointly safeguarding globalization and free trade, cooperation on climate change and terrorism,” there are other issues Macron should consider. “Making France the first major Western power to provide visa-free entry to Chinese tourists and declaring France a strong partner to promote the Belt and Road initiative are important issues,” Song Luzheng, a research fellow at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told the paper.

State media suggests that France should allow Chinese nationals visa-free entry

The notion that France should, but more importantly, can, do anything of the sort underlines Chinese stakeholders lack of understanding of how the European Union operates—particularly concerning diplomatic relations.

And while France naturally could help China promote the so-called One Belt One Road Initiative, France is neither part of China’s “belt” nor “road.” One may also wonder to what extent French consumers would be interested in visiting countries along the “belt and road” simply because the Chinese government believes these to be important cultural and economic corridors of the future. France was also notably absent at the thus-far headline event of the initiative, the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BARF), in 2017.

Photo: Xxjkingdom / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Most importantly, France has zero means of becoming the “first major Western power” that gives Chinese tourists visa-free access to its territories. If the notion that this is possible goes to the highest echelons of Chinese policy experts (such as Song), French diplomats may just find themselves in a situation where they have to explain to their Chinese counterparts how the European Union and the Schengen Area functions.

Even if France wanted to open the floodgates to unlimited Chinese tourism, it would have its hands tied in the matter.

The way it works is that Chinese visitors to France apply for a Schengen visa at the French embassy, a consulate, or perhaps a purpose-built visa application center in China. This visa allows the Chinese visitor to visit France, as well as all European Union member states that have signed the Schengen Agreement—at present representing all EU members with the exceptions of the United Kingdom, Ireland, and recent EU members in Eastern Europe.

Chinese stakeholders fundamentally misunderstand how the European Union operates

Anything else, for example, a visa that only pertains to French territory, would both be in breach of the Schengen Agreement and require border checkpoints to be reintroduced in continental Europe—something the EU will undoubtedly reject in perpetuity. Staying outside (or leaving) Schengen, as the United Kingdom has, is also something that has proven a detriment to Chinese arrivals. Unsurprisingly, Chinese tourists prefer the flexibility of seamlessly crossing European borders when visiting the continent.

Can China encourage France to lobby for visa-free travel to the Schengen Area? Certainly.

However, the EU’s visa policy rests on reciprocity. In other words, visa-free travel for Chinese nationals would require China to extend the same benefit to Schengen Area nationals. Until China decides that the billions in foreign currencies that it earns from its notoriously high visa application fees are less valuable than visa-free agreements, visa-free access to France (and other EU member states) will most likely remain a dream impossible to fulfill. Of course, China’s inbound tourism will continue to suffer as a result as well.