As China lifts pandemic border controls, mixed feelings at home and abroad

A woman celebrates at Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau border checkpoint on the first day China reopens the border amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Hong Kong on Sunday. (Reuters)

HONG KONG: Over the past three years, Zhou Wanhui, a Hong Kong resident, has visited her parents in China just three times.

Although they live only two hours away by train, Covid restrictions made it so difficult to cross the Hong Kong border into mainland China that one of Zhou’s trips included a three-hour flight to Shanghai and nearly a month of quarantine in two cities.

Families like Zhou’s — kept apart for weddings and funerals, birthdays and graduations — are finally preparing for less arduous reunions.

On Sunday, China fully opened its borders for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, welcoming visitors without strict quarantine requirements and allowing its citizens to go overseas once again just as the travel period for Lunar New Year, typically the busiest season, begins.

In Hong Kong’s airport, hundreds of people waited to check in for flights to cities in the south like Xiamen and Chongqing and in the north like Beijing and Tianjin, but the arrivals hall was more quiet. Many of the city’s border checkpoints were reopened; empty transportation halls filled up with groups of people, and shuttered storefronts were open once again.

Zhou, 22, a university student, texted her parents that she planned to be home for Lunar New Year on Jan 22. “Wow, this is such happy news! The border is finally open,” her parents wrote back with a line of thumbs-up emoji.

But unease, from both travellers and nations that have long waited to welcome deep-pocketed Chinese tourists again, has tempered the celebratory mood.

As China swiftly abandoned Covid restrictions, a ferocious outbreak has ripped through the country in recent weeks, causing chaos in hospitals and putting pressure on health care workers. Beijing’s decision, announced less than two weeks ago, to open its borders has left many surprised, confused and cautious.

“It was too abrupt,” said Jenny Zhao, 34, referring to China’s swift reversal of its Covid policies. Zhao, a marketing manager, has been living in Singapore for the past year. She found herself stuck overseas with near-impossible barriers to getting back home to China last year and decided to stay put after finding a job with an international company.

Now, with infections spreading in China, Zhao isn’t sure she is ready to go back.

“All of my family members, including my grandmother, who is 88 years old, have gotten Covid,” Zhao said. Her mother told her that everyone in their 3,000-unit compound in the southern city of Chongqing seems to be sick with the virus.

Instead of going there over the Lunar New Year, Zhao has decided to wait until summer to see her family. By then, she hopes, the current surge in Covid numbers will have fallen, restrictions on Chinese travellers overseas will have eased and airfare will be less expensive. Zhao said she plans to then take her parents on a trip to Thailand.

Nations around the world are eager to welcome the return of Chinese tourists like Zhao and her parents. Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists spent $250 billion a year overseas. Their abrupt disappearance in early 2020, when China suspended tour groups and travel packages, plunged many tour guides and travel operators into bankruptcy. The impact was acutely felt in places like Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

But some of those same countries are also hesitating between attracting Chinese tourists and concerns from health experts about the extent of China’s Covid outbreak, the potential for new mutations of the coronavirus and the possible strain that sick tourists could have on health care systems.

Global health experts and the World Health Organization have warned that the outbreak in China, and the country’s opacity in reporting cases, has made it hard to assess the severity of the situation.

In recent days, dozens of countries worldwide have started to require Covid testing and health monitoring of travellers coming from China. That’s prompted rebuke from Beijing, which has argued that the moves have no scientific basis.

The European Union on Wednesday said it “strongly encouraged” its 27 members to put in place testing and masking requirements as Chinese travellers 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 to opening its border with the mainland, capping the number of visitors at 60,000 people a day. The rule will be applied to Hong Kong visitors travelling north as well. Anyone entering either side of the border is required to show a negative PCR test.

Passengers in the arrival hall for international flights at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China, on Sunday (Bloomberg photo)

On Jeju Island, a South Korean destination once favoured by Chinese tourists, many businesses are in wait-and-see mode. The government has halted all direct flights from China to the island, redirecting visitors to the country’s main airport in Seoul, where travellers will have to take a PCR test upon arrival and quarantine if they are found to be sick.

“We are focused on alternative markets for the time being, such as Japan and Southeast Asia,” said Kim Chang-hyo, an official at the Jeju Island Tourism Association. South Korea has also stopped processing short-term visas for Chinese nationals, except those for diplomatic or business visits.

Thailand’s response has been friendlier. One government minister floated the idea of offering booster vaccines to Chinese tourists. Another urged Thais not to “bully” Chinese visitors based on unfounded fears about Covid.

But the government is also taking measures to prevent the hospital system from being inundated by a sudden outbreak now that China’s borders are open. All visitors to the country must have two shots of a Covid vaccine, and the government has recommended mask-wearing in public. Visitors also must also have medical insurance to cover Covid treatment if they get sick.

Thailand is anticipating around 300,000 Chinese visitors in the first three months of 2023, said Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the country’s Tourism Authority. “There are only 15 flights per week compared to before Covid, where there are around 400 flights per week,” he said. Before the pandemic, nearly 1 million Chinese tourists visited every month.

At the Maetaeng Elephant Park in the northern province of Chiang Mai, employees said they were excited to see Chinese tourists return. For now, though, they are busy with South Koreans, who have largely replaced the Chinese as their biggest clientele.

“It is all still wait and see,” said Thipsuda Poungmalee, a sales and marketing manager at the park.

In Osaka, Japan, where Chinese tourists would sometimes make the news for what the Japanese call “bakugai” — or explosive buying — the optimism is also muted. “Of course, it has been much quieter without tourists from China, the city has been less lively,” said Makoto Tsuda, an official with the Osaka prefecture’s Tourism Promotion office. Before the pandemic, nearly half of all foreign visitors to the city came from China, he said.

Japan is requiring visitors from China to provide a negative PCR test before arriving and to take another test when they arrive. Tsuda said he expects to see more visitors from China, but perhaps not right away.

“I do think there is an additional hurdle compared with visitors from other countries, so it may not be a sudden burst of incoming tourists from China, but more gradual,” Tsuda said.

Among those at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday was Yan Yan, a 55-year-old garment wholesaler who had traveled from South Carolina with her husband.

They waited patiently to check their luggage on a Xiamen Airlines flight to Tianjin as the lines in a packed departures hall inched forward.

She used to visit her parents in Tianjin every year. But this will be her first time home since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Limited flights and abrupt cancellations, not to mention onerous quarantines and PCR testing, had deterred her until now. One of her friends who had flown back to China had spent the entire trip between quarantine facilities.

“Now that the restrictions have loosened, it’s much better,” she said, adding that she was relieved to see her relatives after they had recovered from difficult bouts of Covid several weeks ago.

“It will be a great new year to spend with family.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.