HONG KONG — Zhou Wanhui, who lives in Hong Kong, has visited her parents in China only three times in the past three years. Despite living just two hours away by train, Covid restrictions made it so difficult to cross the border from Hong Kong to mainland China that one of Ms Zhou’s trips involved a three-hour flight to Shanghai and almost a month of quarantine in two cities.
Families like Ms. Zhou’s – who are kept apart for weddings and funerals, birthdays and graduations – are finally preparing for less stressful reunions.
On Sunday, China fully opened its borders for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, welcoming visitors and allowing its citizens to travel abroad again, just as the travel season for the Lunar New Year, usually the busiest season, begins. In Hong Kong, lines of several hundred people were waiting at the airport to check in for flights to southern cities like Xiamen and Chongqing and northern cities like Beijing and Tianjin. Several of the city’s border checkpoints have reopened; empty transport halls filled with crowds and locked shop fronts were reopened.
Ms. Zhou, 22, a university student, wrote to her parents that she plans to come home on January 22 for the Lunar New Year. “Wow, that is such good news! The border is finally open,” her parents wrote back with a thumbs-up emoji.
But fear has tempered the excitement.
As China quickly lifted Covid restrictions, a ferocious outbreak has swept through the country in recent weeks, wreaking havoc in hospitals and straining healthcare workers. Beijing’s decision to open its borders, announced less than two weeks ago, has left many surprised, confused and cautious. Would-be travelers and nations looking to welcome tourists are still processing the sudden change and dampening the spirit of celebration.
“It was too abrupt,” said Jenny Zhao, 34, referring to China’s rapid reversal of its Covid policy. Ms. Zhao, a marketing manager, has lived in Singapore for a year. Last year, stuck abroad and facing almost impossible obstacles to return to China, she decided to stay there after finding a job at an international company.
Now that infections are spreading in China, Ms. Zhao is not sure if she is ready to return.
“All of my family members, including my grandmother, who is 88 years old, have contracted Covid,” Ms. Zhao said. Her mother told her that everyone at her 3,000-unit compound in the southern city of Chongqing appears to have contracted the virus.
Instead of going there over the Lunar New Year, Ms. Zhao has decided to wait until the summer to see her family. By then, she hopes, the current surge in Covid numbers will have eased, restrictions on Chinese travelers abroad will be eased and airfares will be cheaper. Ms. Zhao said she then plans to take her parents on a trip to Thailand.
Nations around the world look forward to welcoming the return of Chinese tourists like Ms. Zhao and her parents. Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists spent $250 billion abroad annually. Their abrupt disappearance in early 2020, when China suspended tour groups and package tours, bankrupted many tour guides and tour operators. The effects have been clearly felt in places like Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
Understand the situation in China
The Chinese government shelved its restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which had sparked mass protests that posed a rare challenge to Communist Party leadership.
However, some of these countries are also reluctant to attract Chinese tourists and health experts are concerned about the scale of the Covid outbreak in China, the potential for new mutations of the coronavirus and the potential strain sick tourists could have on health systems.
Global health experts and the World Health Organization have warned that the outbreak in China and the country’s opacity in reporting cases have made it difficult to assess the seriousness of the situation.
In recent days, dozens of countries around the world have started requiring Covid testing and health surveillance for travelers from China. That has led to a rebuke from Beijing, which has argued the moves have no scientific basis.
The European Union said on Wednesday it “strongly encouraged” its 27 members to introduce testing and masking requirements as Chinese travelers begin to return to popular European cities.
Even Hong Kong, where the government imposed many of the same border restrictions as China until a few months ago, has taken a cautious approach in opening its border with the mainland, limiting visitors to 60,000 people a day. The rule also applies to Hong Kong visitors traveling north. Anyone entering either side of the border must present a negative PCR test.
On Jeju Island, a South Korean destination once favored by Chinese tourists, many businesses are in a wait-and-see attitude. The government has suspended all direct flights from China to the island and diverted visitors to the country’s main airport in Seoul, where travelers must take a PCR test on arrival and quarantine if they are sick.
“We’re focusing on alternative markets like Japan and Southeast Asia for now,” said Kim Chang-hyo, an official with the Jeju Island Tourism Association. South Korea has also stopped processing short-term visas for Chinese nationals, except for visas for diplomatic or business visits.
Thailand’s response was friendlier. A government minister floated the idea of offering booster vaccinations to Chinese tourists. Another urged Thais not to do so.bully“ Chinese visitors due to unfounded fears about Covid.
But the Thai government is also taking measures to prevent its hospital system from being swamped by a sudden outbreak after China’s borders are open. All visitors to the country are required to receive two Covid vaccinations and the government has recommended wearing masks in public. Visitors are also required to have medical insurance to cover Covid treatment if they fall ill.
Thailand expects around 300,000 Chinese visitors in the first three months of 2023, said Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the country’s tourism board. “There are only 15 flights a week compared to pre-Covid where there are around 400 flights a week,” he said. Before the pandemic, almost a million Chinese tourists came every month.
At Maetaeng Elephant Park in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, staff said they were excited to see Chinese tourists returning. For now, however, they are busy with South Koreans, who have largely supplanted the Chinese as their largest clientele.
“It’s all yet to be seen,” said Thipsuda Poungmalee, a sales and marketing manager at the park.
Optimism is also muted in Osaka, Japan, where Chinese tourists sometimes provided what the Japanese call “bakugai” — or explosive buying. “Of course, without tourists from China, it was much quieter, the city was less lively,” said Makoto Tsuda, an official with the Osaka Prefectural Tourism Promotion Bureau. Before the pandemic, nearly half of all foreign visitors to the city came from China, he said.
Japan requires visitors from China to provide a negative PCR test prior to arrival and another test upon arrival. Mr Tsuda said he expects more visitors from China, but maybe not immediately.
“I think there’s an extra hurdle compared to visitors from other countries, so maybe it’s not a sudden burst of tourists from China, but more gradual,” Mr Tsuda said.
Among those who were at the airport on Sunday was Yan Yan, a 55-year-old clothing wholesaler who traveled from South Carolina with her husband.
They patiently waited to check their luggage on a Xiamen Airlines flight to Tianjin as lines slowly moved in a crowded departure lounge.
She used to visit her parents in Tianjin every year. But this will be their first home since the pandemic began in early 2020. Limited flights and abrupt cancellations, not to mention onerous quarantines and PCR tests, had previously put them off. One of her friends who flew back to China had spent the entire trip between quarantine facilities.
“It’s much better now that restrictions have eased,” she said, adding that she was relieved to see her relatives after they recovered from difficult bouts of Covid a few weeks ago.
“It’s going to be a great new year to spend with family.”
Reporting was provided by Hikari Hida, Muktita Suhartono and John Yoon.