China welcomes back international travellers on quarantine-free travel

A passenger receiving a hug at the arrival hall for international flights at the Capital International Airport in Beijing on Jan 8, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/XIAMEN - China has properly reopened its borders to international visitors for the first time since it imposed travel restrictions almost three years back.

The country scrapped its quarantine requirements for international arrivals on Sunday. This will allow overseas travellers to breeze through immigration instead of having to put up with mass testing and centralised quarantine measures.

China had resorted to tough measures as part of its zero-Covid approach, when it sought to keep the virus at bay even at the cost of weaker economic growth and inconvenience to its citizens. It has changed tack of late, despite reports of a spike in cases.

On Sunday, it did away with its “5+3” quarantine policy, under which travellers had to stay at a hotel for five days upon arrival before serving a three-day stay-home notice.

The curbs were even tougher in the early days of the pandemic, when travellers from outside the country needed to be quarantined between two and three weeks when they entered China.

Inbound travellers now need to produce only a negative Covid-19 test taken 48 hours before their flight. Previously, they had to apply for a health code before they could fly and be tested upon arrival before being quarantined.

Thousands of people from Hong Kong, for example, are expected to fly into China in the coming weeks.

At Beijing Capital International Airport, businessman Alan Zhang told The Straits Times: “I’ve not visited my friends and family in Beijing since the pandemic started, so I am excited to catch up with them. I also have work to attend to here.”

The Canadian citizen, 42, had flown from Singapore to Beijing by transiting in Hong Kong. He said he used to visit Beijing at least once a year, but was put off by the previous quarantine requirement.

“It did not help that China had continued with its zero-Covid policy despite the rest of the world opening up, so I thought I would wait for the policy to change... I just didn’t expect it to be so soon,” he added.

The removal of quarantine for inbound travellers was announced on Dec 26 as part of China’s gradual easing up on its exacting Covid-19 policy.

China had, until late November when infections hit a peak of 40,000 new cases a day, insisted on mass testing, strict quarantines and flash lockdowns.

Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong in southern China, and south-western Chongqing city were two of the earliest cities to ease pandemic restrictions on Nov 30, before other cities, including Beijing, loosened their tight measures as well.

The Chinese government on Dec 7 then allowed residents who had Covid-19 to isolate at home instead of being taken to hospital, in a change that caught many by surprise.

A family greeting a woman who arrived on an international flight at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai on Jan 8, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Ms Gina Sun, a 37-year-old musician who flew from the United States to Beijing via Hong Kong, said she had spent a couple of days in the financial hub before her flight to the capital city to avoid being quarantined.

“There was still the ‘5+3’ policy in Beijing when I landed in Hong Kong. That’s why I delayed my flight to Beijing. I didn’t want to spend my days cooped up in a hotel or go through Covid-19 tests,” she said.

Ms Sun plans to spend Chinese New Year, which falls on Jan 22 in 2023, in Beijing with relatives before returning to the US in February. “I have cousins in Beijing whom I’m close to, and I have not seen them since the pandemic started,” she said.

Workers at Xiamen Gaoqi International Airport, where just a handful of international flights were scheduled to land, told ST on Sunday that they are looking forward to welcoming overseas tourists once more flights resume.

“It has been so quiet over the past three years,” said a salesman at the airport’s souvenir shop. “Things were better in 2021, when China had better control over Covid-19, but sales have really dwindled last year because of the outbreaks and the subsequent lockdowns.”

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