January 29, 2023

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Asian Food and Travel Chronicles

As China Drops Travel Rules, Wariness Rises Over its Covid Outbreak

6 min read

For the past three years, China largely shut its borders and kept its people home, retreating from the global engagement that was the foundation for its rise.

As the country now prepares to gradually reopen its doors to help rescue a faltering economy, the world is both excited about the potential boon for business and tourism, but wary about exposure to a country facing an explosion of Covid cases.

Starting Jan. 8, China will drop its strict quarantine requirements for travelers arriving from abroad and lift rules that had limited the number of incoming flights and passengers. It will start processing Chinese passport applications and mainland permits to go to Hong Kong and make it easier for foreigners to get visas for business, study and family reunions.

Immediately, bookings for flights surged as Chinese headed for the exits and planned long-delayed family reunions. Business groups and economists hailed the easing as an important step toward restoring confidence in China’s prospects. On a popular social media site, the French Embassy in China wrote: “Chinese friends, France welcomes you with open arms!”

But the optimism has been tempered by concerns about China’s handling of the explosive wave of infections since it abruptly abandoned its “zero Covid” strategy. Hospitals and funeral parlors have been overwhelmed, and some medicines are scarce. The central government has also failed to provide reliable data, or estimates, on Covid infections and deaths, raising concerns about the scale of the outbreak and Beijing’s credibility.

Many would-be travelers to China expressed worries about getting Covid in a country where medical services are already overstretched. Others wondered how welcoming China would be to foreigners after fanning nationalism and even xenophobia during the pandemic.

Despite the lucrative prospect of Chinese tourists, some countries and cities are nervous about the potential flood of arrivals. In Milan, the Malpensa airport issued a recommendation that passengers arriving from China take antigen tests upon arrival. Japan said it would limit the number and destination of flights from China and require those who recently traveled to the country to be tested on arrival, and sent to a weeklong quarantine if positive.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the restrictions were necessary because of the lack of transparency about Covid’s spread in China.

“There are major inconsistencies in the information about infections coming from the central and local authorities and from the government and the civilian sector,” he said. “That has made it difficult to get a clear grasp on the situation and has heightened concern here in Japan.”

The Communist Party cast aside restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.

The U.S. government is considering taking similar measures on travelers from China because of the lack of transparent data on the current outbreak, an American official said.

Still, the loosening has unleashed massive pent-up demand. On Tuesday, a day after the changes were announced, bookings for flights from mainland China to popular destinations including Singapore, Japan and South Korea, rose threefold on Trip.com Group, a Chinese travel-booking company. Reservations for flights to the mainland increased fivefold, according to data provided by the company.

Some airlines began to resume and increase flights to the mainland. Singapore Airlines said it would reinstate its Singapore-to-Beijing route for the first time since 2020 starting Friday, with more to be added in the coming months.

In Pakistan, Uzair Zahir, the owner of a travel agency in Islamabad, said he was certain that many Pakistanis would fly to China in January as soon as the restrictions lifted, regardless of the Covid situation.

“They don’t have any concerns,” he said, “because everyone has had Covid a couple of times.” He said he had been inundated with calls and messages since Beijing’s announcement, mostly from students and people who do business in China.

The move is a relief for foreign businesses with operations in China. Many had complained that China’s restrictions made it hard for companies to send employees and executives to their Chinese factories and offices.

Rachel Speth, the owner of a business that sells bamboo-based kitchen utensils with offices in Shanghai and the United States, said that on her most recent trip back to China in September, she and her partner had to spend five weeks in quarantine after her partner tested positive for Covid.

The new policy is a dream come true, said Ms. Speth, who is in Shanghai. “Now we can come and go freely. It’s a new day for work schedules and work flow.”

The easing gives businesses clarity that helps them plan for the future, said Eric Zheng, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, who welcomed Beijing’s move. “It’s been three years — its been too long for businesses to stay out of China.”

Mr. Zheng predicted that companies would reassess the environment at the end of January, when a weeklong Lunar New Year holiday ends, and then make decisions. But he added a point of caution about the outbreak: “They’re not going to rush into anything given this surge in cases.”

For some in the business world, the opening up of travel was a reassuring signal from the ruling Communist Party about its priorities. In his decade in power, Xi Jinping, the country’s powerful leader, has sought to tighten the party’s grip over the economy, prioritizing security and political discipline over growth. But in an annual meeting of China’s top leaders two weeks ago, Mr. Xi urged officials to “vigorously restore market confidence” through stable growth and employment.

The new policy is the latest sign that China is finally returning to a more pragmatic, pro-business mentality, said Bruce Pang, chief economist for greater China at Jones Lang LaSalle, a global commercial real estate firm.

“These travel relaxations, together with the lifting of mass testing and domestic efforts to promote consumption, will help China achieve an economic growth rate of over 5 percent in 2023,” Mr. Pang said.

Many homesick Chinese are hoping to visit during the Lunar New Year holiday, which traditionally is the world’s largest annual migration, when hundreds of millions of Chinese travel for family reunions.

Zhang Yuhan, a 26-year-old employee at a securities firm in Japan, said that after waking up to the news about the reopening, she immediately started searching for tickets while brushing her teeth and putting makeup on, to try to snag tickets before they sold out.

She said she bought a one-way ticket to Jilin Province for the holiday to see her grandmother, who is recovering from surgery. This would be her first trip home in three years.

“I’m just so very excited, I really want to return to China to see my friends at home and eat delicious food,” Ms. Zhang said.

The lifting of quarantine rules does not end all obstacles to travel to China. The government has not said if it would start issuing tourist visas again. Also, many people can’t afford the airfare.

Gwen Zhao, 28, a Chinese Ph.D. student in Japan said she was sorry that she couldn’t be with her family when her grandmother died last year. She hopes to visit next year but will need to wait for airfares to fall. Round-trip tickets used to cost her about $400, she said, but are now about $2,800 — seven times as much.

Other travelers are optimistic that China’s outbreak will subside in the coming months and are looking forward to rekindling old friendships.

Before Covid, Chen Hsuan, a sales manager at a technology company in Taipei, traveled frequently inside China, backpacking through the hills of Xinjiang in the country’s far west and lounging on the beaches of Hainan. Along the way, she made many friends, most of whom she has not seen since China’s borders shut.

“The lifting came faster than I expected,” she said. She added that she hoped to visit China in April. “It’s good to see that China, which has always been conservative, is willing to follow the trend of the international community.”

Keith Bradsher, John Yoon, Yan Zhuang, Ben Dooley, Hisako Ueno, Isabella Kwai, Karan Deep Singh and Edward Wong contributed reporting.