HONG KONG – In the past three years, Hong Kong resident Zhou Wanhui has visited his parents in China just three times. Although they live only two hours away by train, Covid restrictions have made it so difficult to cross Hong Kong’s border into mainland China that one of Ms. Zhou’s trips involved a three-hour flight to Shanghai and two cities involves a quarantine of about a month.

Families like Ms. Zhou’s – set apart for weddings and funerals, birthdays and graduations – are finally preparing for less difficult reunions.

On Sunday, China fully opened its borders for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, welcoming visitors without strict quarantine requirements and allowing its citizens to travel abroad once again, as the Lunar New Year For the travel period, usually the busiest season begins. Hundreds of people waited to check-in at Hong Kong airport Flights to cities such as Xiamen and Chongqing in the south and Beijing and Tianjin in the north, but the arrivals hall was much quieter. Several of the city’s border posts were reopened; Empty transportation halls filled with groups of people, and closed storefronts reopened once again.

Ms Zhou, 22, a university student, sent a message to her parents saying she planned to be home on January 22 for the Lunar New Year. “Wow, what good news! The border is finally open,” her parents wrote back with a row of thumbs-up emoji.

But the celebratory mood has been tempered by the uneasiness of both travelers and nations waiting for a long time to welcome back Chinese tourists with deep pockets.

As China increasingly loosens Covid restrictions, a fierce outbreak has swept through the country in recent weeks, causing chaos in hospitals and increasing pressure on health care workers. Beijing’s decision, announced less than two weeks ago to open its borders, has surprised, confused and alarmed many.

“It was very sudden,” said Jenny Zhao, 34, referring to China’s rapid reversal of its Covid policies. Ms. Zhao, who is a marketing manager, has been living in Singapore for the past year. She found herself stranded overseas last year with nearly impossible odds of getting back home to China and decided to stay after finding a job with an international company.

Now, with infections spreading in China, Ms. Zhao isn’t sure she’s ready to go back.

Ms. Zhao said, “All members of my family, including my grandmother, who is 88 years old, have had Covid.” His mother tells him that everyone in their 3,000-unit compound in the southern city of Chongqing seems to be sick with the virus.

Instead of going there on Lunar New Year, Ms. Zhao has decided to wait until summer to see her family. By then, he hopes the current surge in Covid numbers will have fallen, restrictions on Chinese travelers abroad will have eased and airfares will have become less expensive. Ms. Zhao said she plans to take her parents on a trip to Thailand after that.

Nations around the world are eager to welcome the return of Chinese tourists such as Ms Zhao and her parents. Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists spent $250 billion a year abroad. Their sudden disappearance in early 2020, when China suspended tour groups and travel packages, has driven many tour guides and travel operators into bankruptcy. The impact was acutely felt in places such as Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

But some of those same countries are also hesitating to attract Chinese tourists amid concerns from health experts about the extent of China’s COVID outbreak, the potential for new mutations of the coronavirus and the potential strain on health care systems from sick tourists .

Global health experts and the World Health Organization have warned that the outbreak in China and the country’s opacity in reporting cases have made it difficult to assess the severity of the situation.

In recent days, dozens of countries around the world have begun requiring COVID screening and health monitoring of travelers arriving from China. It has drawn rebuke from Beijing, which has argued that the move has no scientific basis.

The European Union said on Wednesday that it “strongly encouraged” its 27 members to implement testing and masking requirements as Chinese travelers begin to return to popular European cities.

Even Hong Kong, where the government imposed border restrictions similar to those of China until a few months ago, has taken a cautious approach to opening its border with the mainland, allowing visitors to exceed 60,000 per day. Has occurred. This rule will also apply to visitors traveling north from Hong Kong. Anyone entering on either side of the border is required to show a negative PCR test.

On Jeju Island, a South Korean destination once favored by Chinese tourists, many businesses are in wait-and-see mode. The government has halted all direct flights from China to the island, redirecting visitors to the country’s main airport in Seoul, where travelers must undergo PCR tests on arrival and quarantine if found ill.

“We are currently focusing on alternative markets such as Japan and Southeast Asia,” said Kim Chang-hyo, an official at the Jeju Island Tourism Association. South Korea has also stopped processing short-term visas for Chinese citizens, except for diplomatic or business visits.

Thailand’s response has been friendly. A government minister floated the idea of ​​giving booster vaccines to Chinese tourists. Another urged Thais to “no”.bully“Chinese visitors are based on unfounded apprehensions about Covid.

But the Thai government is also taking measures to bolster its hospital system to prevent the sudden outbreak, now that its borders with China are open. All visitors to the country must get two shots of the Covid vaccine, and the government has recommended wearing a mask in public. Visitors must also have medical insurance to cover Covid treatment if they become ill.

Thailand is forecasting about 300,000 Chinese visitors in the first three months of 2023, said Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the country’s tourism authority. “There are only 15 flights per week compared to pre-Covid where there were around 400 flights per week,” he said. Before the pandemic, there were about one million Chinese tourists every month.

At Maiteng Elephant Park in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai, staff said they are excited to see Chinese tourists returning. For now, though, they are busy with the South Koreans, who have largely replaced the Chinese as their biggest customers.

“It’s all still to wait and see,” said Thipsuda Pongamali, sales and marketing manager at the park.

In Japan’s Osaka, where Chinese tourists sometimes make news for what the Japanese call “bakugai” – or explosive shopping – optimism is also muted. “Of course, it has become much quieter without tourists from China, the city has been less vibrant,” said Makoto Tsuda, an official at Osaka Prefecture’s tourism promotion office. Before the pandemic, about half of all foreign visitors to the city came from China, he said.

Japan requires visitors arriving from China to provide a negative PCR test prior to arrival and another test upon arrival. Mr. Tsuda said he expected more visitors from China, but maybe not now.

“I think there is an additional barrier compared to visitors from other countries, so it may not be a sudden increase of tourists coming from China, but a more gradual one,” Mr Tsuda said.

One of those people at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday was Yan Yan, a 55-year-old apparel wholesaler who arrived from South Carolina with her husband.

They waited patiently to check their luggage onto a Xiamen Airlines flight to Tianjin as the lines moved through the packed departure hall.

She used to visit her parents in Tianjin every year. But this will be his first home since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. The limited flights and sudden cancellations, not to mention the tough quarantine and PCR testing, was scaring her till now. A friend of hers who had gone back to China spent the entire journey in quarantine facilities.

“Now that the restrictions have loosened, it is much better,” she said, adding that she was relieved to see her relatives after recovering from a tough bout of Covid several weeks ago.

“It will be a great New Year to spend with the family.”

Reporting was contributed by Hikari Hida, Muktita Suhartono And John Yoon,

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