Chinese rush for exit as Beijing ends zero-Covid and opens its doors

SINGAPORE – Moments after China said it would reopen its borders to international travel for the first time in nearly three years, sales of plane tickets out of the country surged as people jumped at the chance to put the stifling zero-Covid restrictions behind them.

At the top of the excursion wish list, regional destinations were a short distance away, with favorite choices in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Bookings more than tripled from the previous day, data from travel company Trip.com Group shows.

Monday’s decision to end quarantine for all arrivals — including Chinese nationals returning home — and scrap most testing requirements from Jan. 8 removed the last major vestige of Beijing’s efforts to eradicate the virus and the Omicron variants now sweeping through China’s 1.4 billion people. At the same time, it means that China – like most major economies – is no longer trying to contain outbreaks within its borders, raising fears of exporting new strains.

Several countries are tightening the rules for travelers from China. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Tuesday that the country will require a negative Covid-19 test on arrival for travelers from China due to the rapid spread of the virus there. The Japanese government will also limit the increase in flights to China demanded by airlines, he said.

Travelers arriving in China waited at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport in Guangdong province on December 25 to board buses to quarantine hotels.


Photo:

Emily Wang Fujiyama/Associated Press

Italy has previously launched a similar rule for visitors to Malpensa airport in the fashion capital of Milan, while passengers to India must show a negative test result before boarding. South Korea has added China to its list of “target inspection” countries, requiring travelers to undergo Covid tests if their temperature exceeds 37.3 degrees Celsius – or 99.14 degrees Fahrenheit.

Escape aside, another draw of Hong Kong may be the chance to be inoculated with one of the mRNA vaccines that China has yet to approve for use at home. Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical (Group) said on Tuesday that people in mainland China can register via WeChat to get Pfizer Inc.

and BioNTech SE’s mRNA Covid vaccines in the semi-autonomous territory.

If they don’t book tickets, customers get their paperwork in order, agents said. “The number of people applying for visas at embassies increased quite a bit as soon as they heard that quarantine upon return was no longer required,” said Kang Yingzhang, who works at China Comfort Travel Group in Beijing.

On Tuesday, the National Immigration Administration said it would lift a ban on issuing and renewing passports for Chinese nationals, a policy that had been in place for more than a year.

The mixed feelings about visitors from China illustrate how Beijing’s sudden reopening has created new and unwelcome risks for large parts of the world that long ago chose to live with the virus. It also serves as a reminder that Chinese tourists are the world’s largest source of tourism revenue, and together they spend around $250 billion a year on average in the five years before the pandemic, UN data shows.

Overseas Chinese have also started planning trips back to China for Lunar New Year family reunions. On Tuesday morning, ticket sales more than quadrupled from a day earlier, Trip.com Group data showed.

Covid-19 cases in China have surged after authorities scrapped most of the restrictions, prompting residents to self-isolate and stockpile medicine. The WSJ’s Jonathan Cheng reports from Beijing on the risks that come with the country’s rapid reopening. Photo: Xiaoyu Yin/Reuters

Inbound visitors are expected to drive the first boom in international travel, according to Xiang Min, a senior executive at Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

its travel unit Fliggy. Airlines will first focus on restoring popular routes, he said.

Based on the experience of airlines outside China, it may take some time. According to Flight Master, a flight data tracking service, just 617 international flights are scheduled for the week of Jan. 8, down from nearly 16,000 in the first week of 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning.

Apart from air travel, China’s land crossings and ports will soon open to passengers and crew, while a pilot program for international cruise ships is planned, a unit under China’s Cabinet said on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, domestic travel has retreated in recent weeks because more people stayed at home to avoid infection. According to Flight Master, the number of domestic flights in the week of December 25 was down 24% compared to the previous week, and down 33% year-on-year.

Omicron’s headlong spread has many worried, especially for vulnerable relatives. Although it is declining, a significant proportion of Chinese people still live in multi-generational households with elderly grandparents being the group most likely to suffer serious illness or death from contracting Covid.

Serena Chen, a 30-year-old marketing manager in Hong Kong, said she would arrange for her parents to travel from the city of Meizhou in neighboring Guangdong province next month. The couple, in their late 50s, have just recovered from a bout of Covid and insisted she should not risk infection by coming to them, she said.

“I haven’t been home in three years,” Chen said. “I miss everything there.”

Some worry that the abrupt reopening in winter, when flu-type infections typically spike, and ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, when Chinese travel for reunions, could cause the virus to spread more quickly.

“I know China needs to open up as soon as possible, but they seem to have chosen the worst possible time to do so,” said Chen Min, a high school teacher in Guangzhou. Her school has moved classes online since only a few students in the entire grade she teaches have not called in sick. After several family members became infected, Chen quarantined his 69-year-old mother, who has not contracted the virus but has hypertension, in her own bedroom. “My biggest worry is that she might get infected. She is the most vulnerable person in the family, she said.

A Covid clinic in Shanghai. Much of China expects to see cases peak sometime during the Lunar New Year.


Photo:

alex plavevski/Shutterstock

Although China’s overall medical resources are generally adequate, emergency beds are almost fully occupied in regions facing high demand, Jiao Yahui, a senior official of the National Health Commission, said at a news conference on Tuesday. She said China is mobilizing resources where they are most scarce.

While China continues to report daily case numbers, most experts say these only capture a fragment of the picture. There were fewer than 4,500 new cases across the country on Monday and one death, according to the daily report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 277 more serious cases, it said, four times the daily average for the past week.

A visit to three of Beijing’s major hospitals on Monday found long waits, overcrowded intensive care units, elderly patients lying on makeshift beds – or in one case, a metal bench. Only patients with the most life-threatening symptoms were admitted, while one of the hospitals had opened a temporary fever clinic in a sports stadium.

Meanwhile, minutes of a meeting of health officials last week put the estimated number of infections from Dec. 1 to Dec. 20 at about 250 million people, or close to a fifth of the entire population. Beijing and Sichuan province had already seen infections pass the 50% mark, it said.

With most of the country still waiting for cases to peak sometime during the Lunar New Year, Beijing warned that the country faces a challenge as infections reach rural areas that are less well-equipped.

No new mutant strains with significant changes in transmissibility, pathogenicity and immune escape have been found so far, the report states.

Write to Raffaele Huang at [email protected] and Rachel Liang at [email protected]

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