by Jing Xuan Teng with Vivian Lin in Shanghai and Xinqi Su in Hong Kong
China lifted quarantine requirements for inbound travellers on Sunday, ending almost three years of self-imposed isolation even as the country battles a surge in Covid cases.
Beijing last month began a dramatic dismantling of a hardline zero-Covid strategy that had enforced mandatory quarantines and gruelling lockdowns.
The containment policy had a huge impact on the world’s second-biggest economy and generated resentment throughout society that led to nationwide protests just before it was eased.
In the final unravelling of those rules, Sunday saw inbound travellers to China no longer required to quarantine, after almost three years of being subject to varying durations of mandatory isolation.
At Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, a woman surnamed Pang told AFP she was thrilled with the change to the rules.
“I think it’s really good that the policy has changed now, it’s really humane,” she told AFP.
“It’s a necessary step I think. Covid has become normalised now and after this hurdle everything will be smooth,” she said.
Chinese people rushed to plan trips abroad after officials last month announced that quarantine would be dropped, sending inquiries on popular travel websites soaring.
But the expected surge in visitors has led more than a dozen countries to impose mandatory Covid tests on travellers from the world’s most populous nation as it battles its worst-ever outbreak.
China has called travel curbs imposed by other countries “unacceptable”, despite it continuing to largely block foreign tourists and international students from travelling to the country.
China’s Covid outbreak is forecast to worsen as it enters the Lunar New Year holiday this month, during which millions are expected to travel from hard-hit megacities to the countryside to visit vulnerable older relatives.
And Beijing has moved to curb criticism of its chaotic path out of zero-Covid, with its Twitter-like Weibo service saying it had recently banned 1,120 accounts for “offences against experts and scholars”.
‘We just walked out’
At Beijing airport Sunday, barriers that once kept international and domestic arrivals apart were gone, as were the “big whites” — staff in hazmat suits long a fixture of life in zero-Covid China.
And at Shanghai airport, one man surnamed Yang who was arriving from the United States said he had not been aware that the rules had changed.
“I had no idea,” he told AFP.
“I’d consider myself extremely lucky if I only need to do quarantine for two days, turned out I don’t have to do quarantine at all, and no paperwork, we just walked out like that, exactly like in the past,” he added.
“I’m quite happy not needing to be in quarantine,” another woman being picked up by her boyfriend who declined to give her name told AFP.
“Who wants to be in quarantine? Nobody.”
And across Asia, tourist hubs are preparing for a surge in Chinese visitors.
In Tokyo, caricaturist Masashi Higashitani was dusting off his Chinese language skills as he prepared for more holidaymakers.
While he was thrilled about China’s reopening, he also admitted some apprehension.
“I wonder if an influx of too many of them might overwhelm our capacity. I’m also worried that we need to be more careful about anti-virus measures,” he told AFP.
Hong Kong opens
In China’s southern semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, Sunday also saw a major relaxation of stringent cross-border travel restrictions with the Chinese mainland.
Hong Kong’s recession-hit economy is desperate to reconnect with its biggest source of growth, and families separated by the boundary are looking forward to reunions over the Lunar New Year.
Up to 50,000 Hong Kong residents are now able to cross the border daily at three land checkpoints after registering online.
Another 10,000 are allowed to enter by sea, air or bridges without needing to register in advance, the city’s leader John Lee said.
At the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint near the city of Shenzhen Sunday, a postgraduate student from mainland China surnamed Zeng told AFP they were happy to cross with no more restrictions.
“I am happy as long as I don’t have to be quarantined — it was so unbearable,” Zeng told AFP.
He said he was confined in his quarantine room, where internet signal was weak, for 21 days the last time he travelled to the mainland in early 2022.
An 80-year-old traveller surnamed Liu said he was returning to Hong Kong from the mainland to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his family.
“I hope the procedure can be further simplified,” Liu told AFP.
“It’s a bit complicated for an 80-year-old man like me.”