Is China doing enough to woo foreign tourists?

Western tourists look at a map while traveling in Beijing, China.
XiXinXing | iStock/360 | Getty Images

As the world steps up efforts to attract Chinese tourists, the Middle Kingdom is also trying to woo travelers – albeit unsuccessfully.

China received 62 million visitors in the first six months of 2014, a 2.8 percent on-year drop, data from the China Tourism Academy (CTA) showed. This downtrend began in 2011 and is likely to continue, according to CTA president Dai Bin.

Meanwhile, China ranked 45th among 140 countries in a tourism competitiveness report by the World Economic Forum last year, down 6 spots from the previous assessment in 2011.

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Limiting factors

A combination of global and domestic factors has diminished China's attractiveness as a tourist destination recently, making Beijing's aim of developing tourism into a strategic economic pillar by 2015 more difficult.

"Crowded attractions and hotels in China, especially during public holidays, as well as conflict with neighboring countries like Japan, have deterred visitors to China," Vera Wang, research analyst at Euromonitor told CNBC, noting a stronger yuan and weak global recovery were also factors.

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"Air pollution problems in major cities like Beijing, also hindered the inbound tourism market," she said. International visitors to Beijing and Shanghai declined by 10 and 6 percent, respectively, last year, according to Euromonitor. Food scares and smog were cited as major deterrents.

In addition, China has failed to step up to competition from regional countries, said David Scowsill, CEO and president of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). "China competes on cultural tours with South Korea and Japan, [while Chinese] cities like Hainan also have a similar product offering with Thailand and Vietnam."

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More needs to be done

Beijing rolled out measures to boost tourism last year including a 72-hour visa-free policy for international transit passengers. While Chinese media reports suggest that measures to expedite visa processing and a tax refund program are also on the cards, industry watchers agree that more should be done to loosen visa regulations.

"At the moment, 97 percent of the world's population needs a visa to enter China – that is the highest among APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) countries," WTTC's Scowsill told CNBC. "72-hour transit visas are a good start but do not help travelers who travel to China as their sole destination. China needs to make itself more accessible."

With its natural splendor and ancient history, the mainland markets itself as a hotspot for cultural tourism. To entice more visitors, China can rebrand itself by learning from European cities like Paris.

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"Famous attractions like the Palace of Versailles are located outside the center of Paris but with an efficient transport system, the city created a seamless travel experience within the destinations. Tourists also go to Paris for its fashion and food. China needs to emulate all these," CTA's Dai said. "We've modernized and foreigners need to know we can offer more than just historical sights."

To be sure, at least some of Beijing's initiatives are showing results. For example, a new law introduced last year targeted tourists' complaints of forced group purchases and unplanned stops in overpriced shops and restaurants by travel agencies.

Stricter punishments worked, Euromonitor's Wang said. "Operators are now more transparent about what is and is not included in travel packages and that's the first step to improving tourists' experiences."