Covid China: After three years of isolation, China opens its doors

Hong Kong (CNN) – Thousands of travelers crossed mainland China’s borders on Sunday for joyous reunions and long-awaited trips as authorities eased restrictions that had separated families and isolated the world’s most populous country for nearly three years.

At international airports in China’s major cities, families awaited returnees at departure gates for the first time since the early days of the pandemic, an abrupt change from long-standing Covid protocols that saw all arrivals processed by workers dressed in hazardous material and transferred to a mandatory hotel. quarantine for days or weeks.

A Beijing resident surnamed Yu took her young son to the capital’s Beijing International Airport to await the arrival of her husband who was returning home from his job in Spain for the first time in nearly a year.

“(Previously) we wouldn’t have been able to pick him up here today, because he would have had to be quarantined before coming home. We’re excited to see him today,” Yu said, moments before her husband left. of those who arrived to take their child in their arms.

In Hong Kong, where most border checkpoints with mainland China had been closed since the early days of the pandemic, residents waited to welcome their loved ones at the previously closed Lok Ma Chau station, as the mainland also eased its border controls with the city.

“I’ve been waiting for this for so long,” said newlywed Felicia Feng in Hong Kong, who hadn’t seen her husband since they married on the mainland a few months earlier.

“It’s my first time going to Hong Kong… I have a whole list of food and places we want to go,” he said, adding that while his hometown in mainland China is not far from Hong Kong, had also limited how often he could see his family again during the pandemic.

“This creates a lot of difficulties for my life, but now everything seems to be getting better,” he said.

The Hong Kong government said up to 60,000 people a day would be allowed to cross the border between the city and mainland China in both directions, and on Sunday tens of thousands of people did just that, he added.

Passengers are seen at the arrivals area of ​​international flights at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 8, 2023.

Passengers are seen at the arrivals area of ​​international flights at Beijing Capital International Airport on January 8, 2023.

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Three years of reduced restrictions

The relaxation of China’s strict border controls, both with Hong Kong and internationally, marks an important step for the country as it quickly ends years of draconian Covid-19 curbs.

For nearly three years, strict border controls cut off China from the rest of the world and placed a heavy burden on families and businesses with ties to the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas.

As other countries lifted Covid travel restrictions over the past year, entry into China remained a rigorous and costly test for overseas Chinese citizens hoping to return home and other travelers eligible to enter the country, which require quarantine, multiple Covid tests and a scramble for limited seats. .Do you want.

Beijing late last month announced it would drop a quarantine requirement for overseas arrivals and relax restrictions limiting the capacity of international flights from January 8, while confirmed authorities It plans to reopen the border with Hong Kong on Thursday activated the same day
For international travel to China, Beijing has yet to give the green light to foreign tourists, and arriving travelers will need to show a negative Covid test result obtained within 48 hours of departure.

But the policy change streamlines the entry process for eligible travelers and will also see authorities begin processing passport applications from Chinese citizens for tourism outside China, which had been limited to discouraging travel from leisure

The rule change, announced late last month, was met with strong interest in China, with bookings for overseas travel during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on January 21 this year, increasing by 540% compared to a year ago, as reported. data from Chinese travel platform Trip.com Group.

“Many people are very interested in taking their family on a nice vacation after three years of confinement,” Trip.com Group CEO Jane Sun told CNN on Monday, pointing to the upcoming week-long vacation as a driver month.

Meanwhile, China’s travel industry was preparing for the expected upswing in travel, Sun said.

“We expect that in the first quarter or two (of 2023), airlines and hotels will take some time to re-hire their staff and build the infrastructure. In the second half of this year, we expect the infrastructure to return to normalcy . . . ,” she said.

Travelers wait for their luggage at the baggage claim area of ​​Shanghai Pudong International Airport as China lifts quarantine requirements for international arrivals January 8, 2023 in Shanghai, China.

Travelers wait for their luggage at the baggage claim area of ​​Shanghai Pudong International Airport as China lifts quarantine requirements for international arrivals January 8, 2023 in Shanghai, China.

VCG / Visual China Group / VCG / Getty Images

Restrictions imposed by other countries

However, some travelers will need to take a Covid test before leaving China to comply with the rules set by other countries. Several countries have implemented Covid testing requirements for travelers from China, citing a paucity of data on circulating strains amid the country’s ongoing and rampant Covid-19 outbreak.

Another Beijing resident, surnamed He, expressed relief at the ease of travel on Sunday as he prepared to take his family to Macau for a Lunar New Year holiday.

Compared to last summer, when he also left China, finding tickets and preparing travel documents was much simpler, he said.

“Now it’s faster. You can just buy a ticket, renew (your travel permit) and go … and then you can start your own life the same day you land,” he said.

But others, like Hong Kong resident Anthony Chan, who was traveling to the mainland to attend a cousin’s wedding, lamented the lost time to see loved ones and go about life as usual.

The 18-year-old said he had not been able to see his extended family on the other side of the border for about three years amid other restrictions on daily life due to pandemic controls.

“Politics (continued) to harm our life over the last few years… it’s not (that) we’re afraid of this Covid. It’s that we’re afraid of this politics,” he said.

Jadyn Sham, Kathleen Magramo and Cheng Cheng contributed to this report.

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