The US government is considering travel entry measures for travellers from China next month – similar to steps announced on Tuesday by Japan, India and Malaysia.
China’s neighbours have voiced mixed reactions to the country suddenly ending its ban on overseas travel from early next month.
While hotels and tourism industry associations have welcomed the news, health officials in some countries fear Chinese citizens may carry the Covid-19 infection with them and create a further surge of infections that could hit their health systems.
Japan, India and Malaysia announced stepped up rules on travellers from China on Tuesday, citing the huge rise in infections there.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said his country would require a negative Covid-19 test on arrival for travellers from the China. Malaysia put in place additional tracking and surveillance measures.
US officials said on Tuesday that Washington may impose new Covid regulations for people on flights from China because of concerns over the “lack of transparent (health) data” from Beijing.
“There are mounting concerns in the international community on the ongoing Covid-19 surges in China and the lack of transparent data, including viral genomic sequence data, being reported from the PRC,” the officials said, using the initials of the People’s Republic of China.
Many funeral homes and hospitals in China have been overwhelmed as the virus spreads largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.
Official statistics, however, showed only one Covid death in the seven days to Monday, fuelling doubts among health experts and residents about the government’s data. The numbers are inconsistent with the experience of much less populous countries after they re-opened.
China said on Monday it would stop requiring inbound travellers to go into quarantine starting from January 8 in a major step towards easing curbs on its borders, which have been largely shut since 2020.
Beijing’s relaxation of Covid rules for international arrivals has raised hopes that its multi-billion dollar travel business will soon flourish again but countries longing for the return of Chinese tourists will likely face more of a wait.
China was the world’s largest outbound tourism market, with its overseas visitors spending $127.5 billion on travel in 2019, before the Covid pandemic shut down global travel.
Airlines to Expand Services
Airlines are drawing up plans to expand their services but ordinary Chinese and travel agencies suggest that a return to anything like normal will take some time.
“It’s great they announced it so I can seriously make my plans,” Beijing exporter Tom Guo, 43 said. But Guo said he would likely wait until the late spring or even the summer before venturing abroad again, most likely to the US to visit a sister.
US carrier United Airlines said it was evaluating the market demand and operating environment to determine when to resume additional flights to mainland China.
The airline currently operates four times a week between San Francisco and Shanghai.
German airline Lufthansa was examining whether to change its flight schedule to China following the changes. “This will contribute to the recovery of international air traffic between Mainland China and Europe,” a spokesperson said.
Duty-free retailer Dufry expects the changes to have a “positive effect at the airports that the Chinese use and where we have a presence,” a spokesperson said.
Guo said he definitely would not be going anywhere before the Lunar New Year holiday in late January.
Many others have taken heart from this week’s news about an imminent relaxation of the rules to begin making plans.
Data from travel platform Ctrip showed that within half an hour of the announcement, searches for popular cross-border destinations had increased 10-fold. The Qunar platform said it saw a seven-fold increase in international flight searches within 15 minutes.
Japan, Thailand and South Korea were among the top destinations searched on both platforms.
But an immediate surge in international travel is not widely expected.
The government, which has since 2020 discouraged international travel given the dangers of Covid, said on Monday that outbound travel would be restored “in an orderly manner”. But it did not elaborate.
‘It Takes Time, Money’
Flight tracking app VariFlight said its expected a robust rebound in flights to and from mainland China by the Labour Day holiday in May, but not before.
According to VariFlight data, international flights to and from China are at 8% of pre-pandemic levels.
Liu Simin, an official with the tourism arm of the China Society for Futures Studies, a research institute based in Beijing, said international travel won’t recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
Weighing on many people’s travel plans is the wave of Covid infections now sweeping China, Liu said. Another problem for many people is money.
“It takes time for people to gain confidence after so many of them lost jobs or made less money during the pandemic,” Liu said.
In a consumer study released this month, before the announcement of the easing of travel restrictions, consultancy Oliver Wyman found more than half of Chinese people surveyed would wait from several months to a year before resuming international travel once borders re-open.
Some airlines were making plans even before Monday’s announcement. Korean Air said it would increase flights between South Korea and China from nine a week to 15 in January.
But for now, foreign visitor arrivals will be limited to resident, work, business, student and family reunification visas. No plan for the resumption of tourist visas has been announced.
One of the fastest bouncebacks is expected to be in international business travel.
Singapore to Resume Flights
Singapore Airlines appears to be one of the first out of the block. SAI said that it will resume passenger flights to Beijing from Friday (December 30), for the first time since the pandemic disrupted flights there in March 2020.
The Straits Times said the national carrier will reinstate passenger flights from Singapore to Beijing on a fortnightly basis.
SIA also has flights to and from Shanghai on Mondays and Saturdays.
- Reuters with additional editing and reporting by Jim Pollard