At international airports in China’s major cities, families waited for returnees at exit gates for the first time since the early days of the pandemic – a sharp change from longstanding Covid protocols, where all arrivals were processed by hazmat-clad workers and to mandatory hotel quarantine for days or weeks.
A Beijing native, nicknamed Yu, took her young son to Beijing’s Capital International Airport awaiting the arrival of her husband who was returning home from his job in Spain for the first time in nearly a year.
“(Previously) we couldn’t have picked him up here today because he would have had to be quarantined before returning home. We are delighted to see him today,” said Yu, just before her husband walked away from the arrivals to take their son in his arms.
In Hong Kong, where most border checkpoints with mainland China have been closed since the start of the pandemic, residents waited to welcome their loved ones at the previously closed Lok Ma Chau station as the mainland also eased border controls with the city.
“I’ve been waiting so long for this,” said Hong Kong newlywed Felicia Feng, who hadn’t seen her husband since they got married on the mainland a few months earlier.
“This is his first time in Hong Kong… I have a full list of food and the places we want to go,” she said, adding that while her hometown in mainland China is not far from Hong Kong, she had also limited how often she could go back to see her family during the pandemic.
“This is causing a lot of difficulties in my life, but now it seems that everything is starting to get better,” she said.
The Hong Kong government said up to 60,000 people a day would be allowed to cross the border between the city and mainland China in both directions, and on Sunday tens of thousands of people did just that, it added.
Passengers are seen in the arrival hall for international flights at Capital International Airport in Beijing on Jan. 8, 2023.
Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Three-year restrictions eased
The relaxation of China’s strict border controls, both with Hong Kong and internationally, marks a major step for the country as it quickly unravels years of draconian Covid-19 restrictions.
For nearly three years, strict border controls had isolated China from the rest of the world and placed a heavy burden on families and businesses with ties to the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and abroad.
While other countries lifted Covid travel restrictions over the past year, entering China remained a rigorous and costly ordeal for foreign Chinese citizens hoping to return home and other travelers eligible to enter the country, requiring quarantine , multiple Covid tests and a battle for seats in a limited number of places were necessary. to flee.
But the policy change both streamlines the entry process for eligible travelers, and authorities will also begin processing passport applications from Chinese citizens for tourism outside of China, which was restricted to discourage leisure travel.
The rule change, announced late last month, has met with an outpouring of interest in China, with overseas travel bookings during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, which begins January 21 this year, rising 540% from a year ago , according to data from Chinese travel platform Trip.com Group.
“A lot of people are very interested in taking their families on a fun vacation after three years of lockdown,” Trip.com Group CEO Jane Sun told CNN on Monday, pointing to the upcoming week-long vacation as another driver.
Meanwhile, China’s travel industry prepared for the expected travel industry recovery, Sun said.
“We expect that for the first one or two quarters (of 2023) it will take airlines and hotels some time to re-hire their staff and build the infrastructure. In the second half of this year, the infrastructure will hopefully be up and running again. be normal.” ,” she said.
Travelers wait for their luggage at the baggage carousel at Shanghai Pudong International Airport as China lifts quarantine requirements for international arrivals on January 8, 2023 in Shanghai, China.
VCG/Visual China Group/VCG/Getty Images
Restrictions imposed by other countries
Another Beijing resident, nicknamed He, expressed relief on Sunday at the ease of travel as he prepared to take his family to Macau for a holiday ahead of the Lunar New Year.
Compared to last summer, when he also left China, finding tickets and preparing travel documents was much easier, he said.
“Now it’s faster. You can just buy a ticket, renew (your travel permit) and go… and then you can start your own life the same day you land,” he said.
But others, like Hong Kong resident Anthony Chan who traveled to the mainland to attend a cousin’s wedding, lamented time lost when it came to seeing loved ones and being able to live as usual.
The 18-year-old said he had not been able to see his extended family across the border for about three years amid other restrictions on daily life due to the pandemic controls.
“The policy (continued) to harm our lives over the past few years…it is not (that) we are afraid of this Covid. It is that we are afraid of this policy,” he said.
Jadyn Sham, Kathleen Magramo and Cheng Cheng contributed reporting.