China reopens its borders to the world this weekend, abandoning the last of its stringent years-long “zero-Covid” rules by scrapping inbound quarantine measures.
The country will also resume issuing visas to foreign nationals and passports to its citizens on the same day.
Dozens of countries have, however, imposed testing requirements on travelers from China, citing Beijing’s reluctance to disclose infection numbers as it appears to suffer a series of enormous nationwide outbreaks, which the World Health Organization says is a cause for alarm.
Chinese authorities were quick to criticize the testing measures as “excessive,” saying that governments are politicizing the pandemic.
But data from Chinese travel agencies show that, regardless of the hurdles, travelers from the mainland are eager and willing to get out of the country.
According to Trip.com, a China-based online travel company, searches for flights out of mainland China increased by 83% this week, compared to the past two weeks.
And the region poised to benefit most from Chinese travelers resuming international tourism appears to be Southeast Asia. Search interest for flights to Thailand, for example, surged the most, according to Trip.com's data — by 176%.
A December survey released by ITB China, meanwhile, showed that a majority of Chinese travel agencies ranked Southeast Asia as a top destination for travelers from China. Those countries have mostly eschewed the COVID-19 tests that Western countries have required of Chinese tourists.
Researchers from Citi predict a "meaningful recovery" for the tourism-reliant region's economy by the second quarter of 2023 as the number of Chinese travelers rebounds to pre-pandemic levels.
According to Reuters, Malaysia projects 1.5 to 2 million Chinese tourists this year, compared to an annual average of 3 million before the pandemic.
Overall, the number of bookings made for outbound trips during Lunar New Year — which begins on January 22 — have “grown significantly,” a representative from Trip.com said, with Macau and Hong Kong leading the charts, as well as Singapore, Japan, the U.S., Canada, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan. All these places, with the exception of Singapore, require negative COVID tests for passengers from China.
In response to the new measures, the Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific said that it will double its flight count between its home base and 13 mainland Chinese cities. It also appeared to have added additional flights between major cities in China and the U.S.
The View From South Korea
While searches for flights to South Korea appear to be among the most popular for would-be Chinese travelers, Seoul announced that it would restrict the issuing of short-term visas to Chinese nationals until the end of January, with the exception of public officials, diplomats, and those with crucial humanitarian and business interests.