Beijing began a dramatic dismantling of a hardline last month zero-Covid strategy who had enforced mandatory quarantines and grueling lockdowns.
The containment policy had a huge impact on the world’s second-largest economy, sparking resentment throughout society, sparking nationwide protests just before it was eased.
Upon the final unraveling of those rules, inbound travelers to China would no longer be required to quarantine on Sunday, after being subject to mandatory isolation of varying durations for nearly three years.
At Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, a woman nicknamed Pang told AFP she was delighted with the rule change.
“I think it’s very good that the policy has now changed, it is really humane,” she told AFP.
“I think it is a necessary step. Covid has now normalized and after this hurdle everything will run smoothly,” she said.
Chinese scrambled to plan trips abroad after officials announced last month that quarantine would be lifted, sending the number of popular travel websites soaring.
But the expected surge in visitors has led more than a dozen countries to impose mandatory Covid testing on travelers from the world’s most populous nation as it battles its worst outbreak on record.
China has called travel restrictions imposed by other countries “unacceptable”, despite continuing to largely bar foreign tourists and international students from entering the country.
China’s Covid outbreak is expected to worsen as it enters the Lunar New Year holiday this month, during which millions of people are expected to travel to the countryside from the hard-hit megacities to visit frail elderly relatives.
And Beijing has taken steps 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 “violations against experts and scholars”.
At Beijing airport on Sunday, the barriers that once separated international and domestic arrivals were gone, as were the “great whites” – staff in safety suits had long been a regular part of life in zero-Covid China.
And at the Shanghai airport, a man named Yang who arrived from the United States said he was unaware the rules had changed.
“I had no idea,” he told AFP.
“I would count myself extremely lucky if I only have to quarantine for two days, turns out I don’t have to quarantine at all, and no paperwork, we just walked out like that, just like in the past,” he added.
“I’m pretty glad I don’t have to be quarantined,” another woman who was picked up by her friend who refused to give her name told AFP.
“Who wants to quarantine? Nobody.”
And all over Asia, tourist centers are preparing for a wave of Chinese visitors.
In Tokyo, caricaturist Masashi Higashitani was dusting off his Chinese language skills as he prepared for more vacationers.
While he was excited about China’s reopening, he also admitted some concerns.
“I wonder if an influx of too many of them could overwhelm our capacity. I’m also concerned that we need to be more careful with anti-virus measures,” he told AFP.
China’s southern semi-autonomous city, Hong Kong, also saw a major easing of strict cross-border travel restrictions with mainland China on Sunday.
Hong Kong’s recession-ravaged economy is desperately trying to reconnect with its main source of growth, and families separated by the border look forward to reunions during the Lunar New Year.
Up to 50,000 Hong Kong residents can now cross the border daily at three country checkpoints after registering online.
Another 10,000 will be allowed to enter by sea, air or over bridges without needing to register in advance, city leader John Lee said.
At the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint near Shenzhen city on Sunday, a postgraduate student from mainland China, nicknamed Zeng, told AFP they were happy to cross without further restrictions.
“I’m happy as long as I don’t have to quarantine – it was so unbearable,” Zeng told AFP.
He said the last time he traveled to the mainland in early 2022, he was locked in his quarantine room for 21 days, where the internet signal was weak.
An 80-year-old traveler, nicknamed Liu, said he returned to Hong Kong from the mainland to celebrate 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.”