Travelers rush to take advantage of China reopening

BEIJING (AP) — After years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure he would be one of the first in line when border crossings opened Sunday.

The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross the road is one of the clearest signs that China has eased border restrictions imposed nearly three years ago, eliminating the need for expensive and time-consuming quarantines for travelers arriving from abroad. .

This comes even as the virus continues to spread in China, with what critics say is a lack of transparency on Beijing’s part.

“I’m in a hurry to get back to her,” Cheung told The Associated Press, lugging a heavy suitcase as he prepared to cross Lok Ma Chau station, which was always packed with eager travelers.

But those crossing Hong Kong and mainland China are still required to show a negative COVID-19 test in the past 48 hours, something China has protested against being imposed by other countries.

Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, with its land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the update, which will allow tens of thousands of people who previously booked online earlier to travel within a day, is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.

During a visit to the station on Sunday morning, Hong Kong chief executive John Lee said the countries would continue to increase the number of crossing points from the current seven to 14.

“The goal is to return to pre-epidemic normal life as soon as possible,” Lee told reporters. “We want the cooperation between the two sides to accelerate again.”

Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official at Shenzhen’s border with Hong Kong, who said about 200 passengers were expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 passengers were expected to travel in the other direction, for the first time. opening day. Tan said a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected in the coming days.

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“I stayed up all night and got up at 4 a.m. because I was very anxious to go back to the mainland and see my 80-year-old mother,” said the Hong Kong woman, identified only by her surname Cheung. In Shenzhen, where she was presented with “roses and health kits,” the paper said.

Hong Kong media reports say about 300,000 trips from the city to mainland China have already been booked, with a daily quota of 60,000.

Limited ferry services have also been restored from China’s Fujian province to the Taiwanese-controlled island of Kinmen, just off China’s coast.

The border crossing with Russia at Suifenhe in the far northern Heilongjiang province has also resumed normal operations, just in time for the start of the ice festival in the capital Harbin, a major tourist attraction.

And in Ruil, on the border with Myanmar, normal operations resumed after 1,012 days of full or partial closure in response to repeated outbreaks partly blamed on visitors from neighboring China.

For now, only a fraction of the previous number of international flights are arriving at China’s major airports.

The capital’s main international airport in Beijing was expecting eight flights from overseas on Sunday. Shanghai, China’s largest city, received its first international flight under the new policy at 6:30 a.m.

From 2020 As of March, all international passenger flights bound for Beijing were diverted to the first points of entry into China. Passengers had to be quarantined for up to three weeks.

“I have been in isolation quarantine six times in different cities (in mainland China),” said Ivan Tang, a business traveler from Hong Kong. “They were not easy experiences.”

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Ming Guanghe, a Chinese man living in Singapore, said it was difficult to both book a ticket and find a place to take the PCR test. Quarantine measures and uncertainty about the outbreaks prevented him from entering the home, Ming said.

Shanghai has announced that it will resume issuing regular passports to Chinese people for overseas travel and family visits, as well as extending and renewing visas for foreigners. Those restrictions have had a particularly devastating effect on foreign businessmen and students in Asia’s main financial center.

China is now dealing with a large number of cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing for further expansion to less developed areas when its most important holiday, the Lunar New Year, begins in the coming days.

Authorities expect domestic rail and air travel to double from the same period last year, bringing the total closer to 2019. the holiday period before the start of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, more foreign governments are imposing testing requirements on travelers from China, most recently from Germany, Sweden and Portugal. On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urged citizens to avoid “unnecessary” travel to China, citing the rise in coronavirus cases and China’s “overburdened” health system.

German regulation also allows for spot checks on arrival. Germany, like other European countries, will test aircraft sewage for possible new variants of the virus. The measures come into effect at midnight on Monday and will last until April 7.

Clearly concerned about its reputation, China says the testing demands are not based on science and has threatened unspecified retaliation.

Chinese health authorities publish daily numbers of new infections, severe cases and deaths, but these numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of deaths related to COVID-19.

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The National Health Commission reported 7,072 new confirmed cases of local transmission and two new deaths on Sunday, even as individual provinces reported about 1 million cases a day.

Authorities say they can no longer provide a complete picture of the outbreak since the government lifted mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to self-test and recover at home. China’s vulnerability is compounded by a general lack of exposure to the virus and a relatively low vaccination rate among the elderly.

Government officials insist the situation is under control and reject accusations by the World Health Organization and others that they are not being transparent about the outbreak, which could lead to new variants.

The health commission on Saturday announced rules to strengthen monitoring of viral mutations, including testing of city sewage. The rules called for more data to be collected from hospitals and local government health departments and for tougher checks on “pneumonia of unknown cause”.

Criticism has focused largely on strict enforcement of the rules, including indefinite travel restrictions that have kept people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes confined inside without adequate food or medical care.

Anger has also been vented at the requirement that anyone who tests positive or has been in contact with such a person be locked up for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were commonly cited.

The social and economic costs eventually led to rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, which may have influenced the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease the strictest measures.


Associated Press reporters Alice Fung and Karmen Li in Hong Kong, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Olivia Zhang, Wayne Zhang and Henry Hou in Beijing contributed to this report.


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