There was an excited air at Chinese airports on Sunday as thousands of citizens queued to leave the country or streamed across the border into Hong Kong from the mainland.
People were finally free to reunite with families and friends after three years of being locked down, with a reopening of borders that have been shut since the start of the Covid pandemic.
The government also ended a requirement for incoming travellers to quarantine, dismantling a final pillar of unpopular ‘zero-Covid’ policy that shielded Chinese people from the virus – but cut them off from the rest of the world.
China’s abrupt easing over the past month of one of the world’s tightest Covid regimes followed historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, curbs on movement and mass lockdowns that heavily damaged the second-biggest economy.
“I’m so happy, so happy, so excited. I haven’t seen my parents for many years,” Hong Kong resident Teresa Chow said as she and dozens of other travellers prepared to cross into mainland China from Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau checkpoint early on Sunday.
“My parents are not in good health, and I couldn’t go back to see them even when they had colon cancer, so I’m really happy to go back and see them now,” she said, adding that she plans to head to her hometown in eastern China’s Ningbo city.
Investors hope the reopening will eventually reinvigorate a $17-trillion economy suffering its lowest growth in nearly half a century. But the abrupt policy reversal has triggered a tidal wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals and causing business disruptions.
The border opening follows Saturday’s start of “chun yun”, the first 40-day period of Lunar New Year travel, which before the pandemic was the world’s largest annual migration of people returning to their hometowns of taking holidays with family.
More than 2 billion trips are expected this season, nearly double last year’s movement and recovering to 70% of 2019 levels, the government says.
Many Chinese are also expected to start travelling abroad, a long-awaited shift for tourist spots in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, though more than a dozen governments – worried about China’s Covid spike – are imposing curbs on travellers from the country.
Travel will not quickly return to pre-pandemic levels due to such factors as a dearth of international flights, analysts say.
New passports, travel visa issued
China on Sunday also resumed issuing passports and travel visas for mainland residents, and ordinary visas and residence permits for foreigners. Beijing has quotas on the number of people who can travel between Hong Kong and China each day.
Videos posted on Chinese social media showed workers at Shanghai’s Pudong airport overnight taking down bright blue boards marking routes through its international terminal to enforce a regime that required travellers from abroad to quarantine for up to eight days upon arrival.
Other videos showed people hugging emotionally upon reuniting at the airport gate.
At Hong Kong’s Lok Ma Chau checkpoint, a driver who only gave his surname Yip, said he was among those who could not wait to travel to the mainland.
“It’s been three years, we have no time to delay,” he said.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard