Beijing: China lifts 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 virus strategy that had enforced mandatory quarantines and gruelling lockdowns. In the final unravelling of those rules, Sunday will see inbound travellers to China no longer required to quarantine.
Since March 2020, all arrivals had been forced to undergo isolation at centralised government facilities. This decreased from three weeks to one week this summer, and to five days in November.
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 over a dozen countries to impose mandatory COVID tests on travellers from the world's most populous nation as it battles its worst-ever outbreak.
Beijing has called travel curbs imposed by other countries "unacceptable", despite it continuing to largely block foreign tourists and international students from travelling to China.
'More the merrier'
Despite the testing requirements, 28-year-old Zhang Kai told AFP he is planning a trip to either South Korea or Japan.
"I am happy, now finally (I can) let go," Zhang said.
Friends of his have already landed in Japan and undergone tests, which he dismissed as a "small matter".
Across Asia, tourist hubs are preparing for a surge in Chinese visitors.
At a crepe stand in Seoul, Son Kyung-rak said he was making plans to deal with a flood of tourists.
"We're looking to hire and preparing to stock up," the 24-year-old told AFP in Seoul's popular downtown Myeongdong district.
"Chinese tourists are our main customers, so the more the merrier."
In Tokyo, caricaturist Masashi Higashitani was dusting off his Chinese language skills as he prepared for more holidaymakers.
'Great migration' kicks-off
China on Saturday marked the first day of "chun yun", the 40-day period of Lunar New Year travel known pre-pandemic as the world's largest annual migration of people, bracing for a huge increase in travellers and the spread of COVID-19 infections.
This Lunar New Year public holiday, which officially runs from Jan. 21, will be the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.
Investors are hoping that the reopening will eventually reinvigorate a $17-trillion economy suffering its lowest growth in nearly half a century.
The Ministry of Transport said on Friday that it expects more than 2 billion passengers to take trips over the next 40 days, an increase of 99.5% year-on-year and reaching 70.3% of trip numbers in 2019.
There was mixed reaction online to that news, with some comments hailing the freedom to return to hometowns and celebrate the Lunar New Year with family for the first time in years.
Authorities say they are boosting grassroots medical services, opening more rural fever clinics and instituting a "green channel" for high risk patients, especially elderly people with underlying health conditions, to be transferred from villages directly to higher level hospitals.
Hong Kong opens
In China's southern semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, Sunday will also see 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 will be able to cross the border daily at three land checkpoints after registering online.
Another 10,000 will be allowed to enter by sea, air or bridges without needing to register in advance, the city's leader John Lee said.
More than 280,000 in total had registered to make the journey within a day of the new rules being announced.
But Hong Kong travellers will still need to present a negative nucleic acid test result obtained no more than 48 hours before departure.
Immigration authorities will start issuing permits for mainlanders to travel to Hong Kong and Macau "according to the epidemic situation and service capacities", the city has said.
Hong Kong's flag carrier Cathay Pacific has said it will more than double its flights to the Chinese mainland.
After two years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure to be among the first in line following the reopening of border crossing points Sunday.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross over is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions, with travelers arriving from abroad also no longer required to undergo quarantine.
“I’m hurrying to get back to her,” Cheung, lugging a heavy suitcase, told The Associated Press as he prepared to cross at Lok Ma Chau station.
Travelers crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China, however, are still required to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 48 hours — a measure China has protested when imposed by other countries.
On a visit to the station Sunday morning, Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee said the sides would continue to expand the number of crossing points from the current seven to the full 14.
“The goal is to get back as quickly as possible to the pre-epidemic normal life," Lee told reporters. “We want to get cooperation between the two sides back on track."
“I stayed up all night and got up at 4:00 a.m. as I’m so excited to return to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother," a Hong Kong woman identified only by her surname, Cheung, said on arrival at Shenzhen, where she was presented with “roses and health kits," the paper said.