China reopens borders as lunar new year travel kicks off amid Covid surge

China has lifted quarantine requirements for inbound travellers, ending almost three years of self-imposed isolation even as the country battles a surge in Covid cases.

On Sunday, mainland China also opened its border to Hong Kong, dismantling the last pillars of a zero-Covid policy that had shielded people from the virus but also cut them off from the rest of the world.

The containment policy had a huge impact on the world’s second-biggest economy and generated resentment throughout Chinese 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 news agency 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 said.

“It’s a necessary step, I think. Covid has become normalised now and after this hurdle everything will be smooth.”

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.

The outbreak is forecast to worsen as China 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.

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.

This lunar new year public holiday, which officially runs from 21 January, will be the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.

China’s ministry of transport said on Friday that it expected more than 2 billion passengers to take trips over the next 40 days.

Passengers on an escalator at a train station in Wuhan.
Passengers on an escalator at a train station in Wuhan. Photograph: Ren Yong/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

In China’s southern semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, stringent cross-border travel restrictions with the Chinese mainland were relaxed on Sunday.

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.

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 said 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. But while he said he was thrilled about China’s reopening, he 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.”

Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report