As China drops travel rules, caution mounts amid its Covid outbreak

Over the past three years, China has largely closed its borders and kept its people at home, withdrawing from the global engagement that formed the basis of its rise.

As the country now prepares to gradually reopen its doors to help rescue a faltering economy, the world is both excited about the potential boon to business and tourism, but also skeptical of a country headed for a blast of Covid cases.

From Jan. August, China will lift its strict quarantine requirements for overseas travelers and lift rules that had limited the number of flights and passengers arriving. It will begin processing Chinese passport applications and mainland permits to enter Hong Kong and make it easier for foreigners to obtain visas for business, study and family reunions.

Flight bookings soared immediately as Chinese headed to the exits and planned long-delayed family reunions. Business groups and economists hailed the easing as an important step in restoring confidence in China’s prospects. On a popular social media page, the French Embassy in China wrote: “Chinese friends, France welcomes you with open arms!”

However, the optimism has been tempered by concerns about China’s handling of the explosive wave of infections since it abruptly abandoned its “zero Covid” strategy. Hospitals and funeral homes are overwhelmed and some medicines are in short supply. The central government has also failed to provide reliable data or estimates on Covid infections and deaths, raising concerns about the scale of the outbreak and Beijing’s credibility.

Many would-be travelers to China have expressed concern about catching Covid in a country where medical supplies are already stretched. Others wondered how welcoming China would be to foreigners after stoking nationalism and even xenophobia during the pandemic.

Despite the lucrative prospect of Chinese tourists, some countries and cities are nervous about the potential spate of arrivals. In Milan, Malpensa Airport issued a recommendation that passengers arriving from China should undergo antigen testing upon arrival. Japan said it would limit the number and destination of flights from China and require those who have recently traveled to the country to be tested on arrival and placed in a week-long quarantine if the result is positive.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the restrictions were necessary because of the lack of transparency on the spread of Covid in China.

“There are major contradictions in the information about infections coming from the central and local authorities, as well as from the government and the civilian sector,” he said. “That has made it difficult to grasp the situation clearly and increased concern here in Japan.”

The US government is considering taking similar measures for travelers from China because of the lack of transparent data on the current outbreak, a US official said.

Nevertheless, the easing has released massive pent-up demand. On Tuesday, a day after the changes were announced, bookings for flights from mainland China to popular destinations including Singapore, Japan and South Korea surged threefold at Group, a Chinese travel booking company. Bookings for flights to the mainland increased fivefold, according to the company.

Some airlines began to resume and increase flights to the mainland. Singapore Airlines said it would resume the Singapore-Beijing route from Friday for the first time since 2020, with more to come in the coming months.

In Pakistan, Uzair Zahir, a travel agency owner in Islamabad, said he was sure many Pakistanis would fly to China in January once restrictions were lifted, regardless of the Covid situation.

“They have no concerns,” he said, “because everyone has had Covid a couple of times.” He said he has been inundated with calls and messages since Beijing’s announcement, mostly from students and people doing business in China.

The move is a relief for foreign companies with branches in China. Many had complained that China’s restrictions were making it difficult for companies to send employees and managers to their Chinese factories and offices.

Rachel Speth, the owner of a company that sells bamboo-based kitchenware with offices in Shanghai and the United States, said she and her partner had to spend five weeks in quarantine on their last trip to China in September after their partner tested positive for Covid .

The new policy is a dream come true, said Ms. Speth, who is in Shanghai. “Now we are free to come and go. It’s a new day for work schedules and workflows.”

The easing gives businesses clarity that will help them plan for the future, said Eric Zheng, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, who welcomed Beijing’s move. “It’s been three years – it’s been too long for companies to stay out of China.”

Mr. Zheng predicted that in late January, when a week-long Lunar New Year holiday ends, companies would reassess the environment and then make decisions. But he added a point of caution about the outbreak: “You’re not going to rush anything in the face of this increase in cases.”

For some in the business community, the opening of travel was a reassuring signal from the ruling Communist Party about its priorities. In his decade in power, Xi Jinping, the country’s powerful leader, has sought to consolidate the party’s grip on the economy by prioritizing security and political discipline over growth. But at an annual meeting of China leaders two weeks ago, Mr Xi urged officials to “vigorously restore market confidence” through stable growth and jobs.

The new policy is the latest sign that China is finally returning to a more pragmatic, business-friendly mentality, said Bruce Pang, chief economist for Greater China at Jones Lang LaSalle, a global commercial real estate company.

“These travel facilitations, along with the lifting of mass testing and domestic efforts to boost consumption, will help China achieve an economic growth rate of over 5 percent in 2023,” he said. said Pang.

Many homesick Chinese are hoping to visit during the Lunar New Year holiday, which has traditionally been the world’s largest annual migration, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel for family reunions.

Zhang Yuhan, a 26-year-old employee at an investment firm in Japan, said that after waking up to the news of the reopening, she immediately started looking for tickets while brushing her teeth and putting on makeup beforehand Get tickets they were sold out.

She said she bought a one-way ticket to Jilin Province for the holiday to see her grandmother, who is recovering from surgery. This would be her first trip home in three years.

“I’m just so excited, I really want to go back to China to see my friends at home and eat delicious food,” Ms. Zhang said.

The lifting of quarantine rules does not remove all obstacles to travel to China. The government has not said whether it would start issuing tourist visas again. In addition, many people cannot afford the flight.

Gwen Zhao, 28, a Chinese Ph.D. Student in Japan said she was sorry she couldn’t be with her family when her grandmother died last year. She’s hoping to visit next year but will have to wait for airfares to come down. Round-trip tickets here used to cost about $400, she said, but now it’s about $2,800 — seven times as much.

Other travelers are optimistic that the outbreak in China will subside in the coming months and look forward to rekindling old friendships.

Before Covid, Chen Hsuan, a sales director at a Taipei tech company, traveled frequently within China, backpacking the hills of Xinjiang in the country’s far west and lounging on the beaches of Hainan. She has made many friends along the way, most of whom she has not seen since the Chinese borders closed.

“The lift came quicker than I expected,” she said. She added that she hopes to visit China in April. “It’s good to see that China, which has always been conservative, is ready to follow the trend of the international community.”

Keith Bradsher, John Yon, Yan Zhuang, Ben Dooley, Hisako Ueno, Isabella Kwai, Karan Deep Singh Spirit Edward Wong contributed reporting.

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