HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – Travelers flocked to China by air, land and sea on Sunday, with many eager for a long-awaited reunion as Beijing opened up borders that have been virtually closed since the start of COVID-19. pandemic.
Three years later, mainland China opened sea and land crossings with Hong Kong and ended a requirement for incoming travelers to quarantine, dismantling the last pillar of the coronavirus non-spread policy that had protected China’s 1.4 billion people from the virus but also kept them from reaching it. the rest of the world.
China’s easing over the past month of one of the world’s toughest COVID-19 regulations followed historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, movement restrictions and mass lockdowns that have wreaked havoc on the second-largest economy.
Long lines formed at check-in counters at Hong Kong International Airport for flights to mainland cities including Beijing, Tianjin and Xiamen. Hong Kong media estimated that thousands were crossing.
“I’m so happy, so happy, so excited. I haven’t seen my dad in many years,” said Hong Kong resident Teresa Chow, as she and dozens of other travelers prepared to cross into mainland China from Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau checkpoint.
“My parents are not healthy and I can’t go back to see them even when they had colon cancer, so I’m really happy to be back and seeing them now,” she said.
Investors hope reopening will invigorate the $17 trillion economy, which is suffering from its slowest growth in nearly half a century. But the sudden policy reversal led to a massive wave of infections that swept through some hospitals and caused business disruptions.
The opening of borders follows the start of the Chunyun trek on Saturday, the 40-day period of Lunar New Year travel, which before the pandemic was the world’s largest annual migration, as people returned to their hometowns or were spending holidays with their families.
The government says trips are expected to reach two billion this season, nearly double last year’s traffic and recovering to 70% of 2019 levels.
It is also expected that many Chinese will start traveling abroad, a long-awaited shift for tourist spots in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. But many governments – concerned about the rise of the coronavirus in China – are imposing restrictions on travelers from the country.
Analysts say travel will not quickly return to pre-pandemic levels due to factors such as the scarcity of international flights.
On Sunday, China resumed issuing passports and travel visas to mainland residents and ordinary visas and residence permits to foreigners. Beijing applies quotas on the number of people who can travel between Hong Kong and China each day.
At Beijing Capital International Airport, families and friends exchanged emotional hugs and greetings with passengers from places such as Hong Kong, Warsaw and Frankfurt. It would have been impossible to have meetings just a day earlier.
“I’ve been looking forward to reopening for a long time. Finally, the world has been reconnected. I’m overjoyed, I can’t believe this is happening,” said a 55-year-old businesswoman named Xin, who came from Hong Kong.
Others waiting at the airport include a group of women with long-lens cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of boy band Tempest, the first South Korean idol group to enter China in three years.
“So good to see them in person! They are more handsome and taller than I expected,” said a 19-year-old who gave her name as Xiny, chasing after the group of seven members, who had arrived in Beijing from Seoul.
China downgraded its administration’s COVID classification to Category B from A, allowing local authorities to impose quarantines on patients and their close contacts and lock down areas.
But there are still concerns that the massive exodus of urban workers to their hometowns and the reopening of borders could cause an increase in infections in smaller towns and rural areas less equipped with intensive care beds and ventilators.
The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that China’s COVID data does not represent the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the disease.
Chinese officials and state media have defended the handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the surge and decrying the requirement for overseas travel on the Chinese population.
Demand for emergency and critical care in large cities in China has probably peaked but is rising rapidly in small and medium cities and rural areas due to the Lunar New Year trip, said Jiao Yahui, an official from the National Health Commission, in an interview released by state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday. .
It said about 80% of intensive care beds in first- and second-tier hospitals in China were in use, up from 54% on December 25, adding that the country’s medical services to treat COVID were facing an “unprecedented challenge”.
Health officials said in a news conference that they would not rule out the possibility of emergency COVID prevention measures such as suspending large-scale non-essential activities and businesses at large entertainment venues to deal with a major outbreak.
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced two new deaths per day from the coronavirus on the mainland, compared to three the previous day, bringing the official death toll to 5,269.
(Reporting by Joyce Zhou in Hong Kong and Yu Lun Tian and Josh Arslan in Beijing; Additional reporting by Tony Monroe in Hong Kong. Yingzhi Yang and Eve Wu in Beijing; Writing by Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Editing by William Mallard
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