Travellers wait at the gate of the Lok Ma Chau border checkpoint in Hong Kong, China, on January 08, 2023.
Anthony Kwan—Getty Images
January 8, 2023 11:47 AM EST

There was jubilation and heartache in cities across China as the long-awaited border reopening — the final step in country’s dismantling of Covid Zero — sparked a homecoming rush for many diaspora.

Gu Tingting was looking forward to seeing her grandfather and eating local cuisine in Beijing after a three-year absence in London, where she works for an energy company.

“I’m gonna cry, I’m back in Beijing and will eat dumplings, lamb skewers, everything I like,” said the 28-year old, who flew into the capital via Hong Kong.

Starting Sunday, China no longer requires quarantine for arrivals after authorities ditched the policy that, along with the exorbitant cost of air fares amid severe capacity constraints, was a major deterrent for travelers. While anyone wanting to enter the country will still need a 48-hour negative Covid test result, the substantial easing in border controls just two weeks before the Lunar New Year holiday marks an end to Beijing’s efforts to keep out the virus.

But the influx of travelers heading into the country is unlikely to be matched by a surge in demand for overseas trips. The flow of Chinese tourists, previously a $280 billion spending force in global holiday hotspots from Paris to Tokyo, will take months if not years to recover to its pre-pandemic level.

A raft of countries have implemented testing requirements on travelers from China after infections surged, and airlines have been reluctant to immediately make major changes to their flight schedules meaning capacity remains tight and prices high.

“The willingness to travel has started to strongly rebound among Chinese,” said Chen Xin, head of China leisure and transport research at UBS Securities. “But it still takes time to be reflected in the outbound travel routes.”

The reopening of China’s borders marks the end of Covid Zero, a strategy that left the world’s second-biggest economy isolated for three years and weighed heavily on the economy. While the measures managed to keep the virus at bay for much of the pandemic as it killed millions elsewhere, they became increasingly irrelevant as the emergence of more infectious variants made stamping out the coronavirus all but impossible.

Royce flew into Shanghai from Hong Kong on Sunday after an almost month-long trip to Australia — his first overseas journey in three years. He waited for four days in Hong Kong to avoid quarantine in the mainland. Royce, who operates an import-export business in Shanghai, plans to leave again for Europe next month to meet clients.

“The reopening is extremely important for the economy,” he said. “For those three years it was shut down, the relationships with our partners in different countries just deteriorated.”

The government began rolling back quarantine, which was stretched arbitrarily by local authorities in parts of China to almost a month at some points in the pandemic, in June last year, with the pace of change quickening after China abruptly abandoned domestic Covid control measures like mass testing and lockdowns in the final months of 2022.

It is the last country to abolish border restrictions, more than a year after early Covid Zero proponents such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand resumed quarantine-free international travel.

The reopening won’t bring much risk of a new outbreak because the BQ and XBB subvariants are still part of the omicron strain, Wu Zunyou, a chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told state broadcaster CCTV. Wu said China hasn’t found any new mutation domestically.

Much of the initial inbound flow is expected to come from Hong Kong, through which many of the diaspora will travel given limited direct flights from global destinations to mainland cities. There’s been a rush to secure spots in the daily quota of about 60,000 people allowed to travel northward from the financial hub, including 50,000 via the land borders that separate the two places.

“I haven’t been home in almost two years, so the announcement felt like a fever dream,” said Connor Zhao, a 25-year-old consultant who lives in San Francisco. He’s currently on holiday in Bangkok and will fly to Qingdao on Jan. 19, with his trip including a layover in Hong Kong.

“I’m very excited to see my parents. Getting to spend Chinese New Year with them means a lot to me,” he said.

Hong Kong’s leader John Lee said the next step would be lifting the quota, though he didn’t provide any date.

“The government hopes to reach complete normalcy in terms of the mainland border reopening,” Lee said on Sunday at the Lok Ma Chau station border control point. “I hope it will be as soon as possible.”

Olivia Wang is one who took immediate advantage of the border opening. The graduate student at the University of Hong Kong has been separated for three years from her partner, who lives in the neighboring city of Shenzhen. She has seen her partner, who she married in October, seven times in that period. Each visit she endured quarantine of up to 21 days.

“I feel like a part of me is coming back to life,” said Wang, who crossed into mainland China at Lok Ma Chau station. “In the past years I’ve felt alone and distressed, deprived of the chance to see my family.”

As for the resumption of visitation by foreigners and business people to China, the requirement for a negative PCR test and practices like near-universal mask wearing may act as a deterrent in the near term. But for the first time since the virus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, China has rejoined the rest of the world.

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