Hong Kong (CNN) — Thousands of travelers crossed the borders of mainland China on Sunday for joyous reunions and long-awaited journeys as authorities eased restrictions that had both separated families and isolated the world’s most populous country for nearly three years.

At international airports in major Chinese cities, families waited for returnees at exit gates for the first time since the early days of the pandemic – a dramatic change from longstanding Covid protocols which saw all arrivals handled by workers dressed in hazardous materials and taken into mandatory hotel quarantine for days or weeks.

A Beijing resident surnamed Yu brought her young son to the Beijing Capital International Airport to await the arrival of her husband returning home from work in Spain for the first time in nearly a year.

“(Previously) we couldn’t have picked him up here today because he would have had to be quarantined before going home. We’re excited to be able to see him today,” Yu said, moments before that her husband does not go out. newcomers to take their son in their arms.

In Hong Kong, where most border checkpoints with mainland China had been closed since the early days of the pandemic, residents waited to greet loved ones at Lok Ma Chau Station, which was previously closed as the mainland also relaxed its border controls with the city.

“I’ve been waiting for this for so long,” said newlywed Felicia Feng in Hong Kong, who hadn’t seen her husband since their mainland wedding a few months earlier.

“This is his first time in Hong Kong…I have a full list of foods and places we want to go,” she said, adding that although her hometown in Mainland China is not far from Hong Kong, she had also been limited in how often she could return to see her family during the pandemic.

“It creates a lot of difficulties in my life, but now it seems like everything is starting to get better,” she said.

The Hong Kong government said up to 60,000 people per day would be allowed to cross the border between the city and mainland China back and forth, and on Sunday tens of thousands did just that, he added.

Passengers are seen in the arrivals area for international flights at the Capital International Airport in Beijing on January 8, 2023.

Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Three years of easing restrictions

The easing of China’s tight border controls, both with Hong Kong and abroad, marks a decisive step for the country as it rapidly unravels years of draconian Covid-19 restrictions.

For nearly three years, tight border controls isolated China from the rest of the world and placed a heavy burden on families and businesses with ties to the mainland, Hong Kong, Macau and overseas.

While other countries have lifted Covid travel restrictions over the past year, entering China has remained a rigorous and costly ordeal for overseas Chinese citizens hoping to return home and others. travelers eligible to enter the country, requiring quarantine, several Covid tests and a rush to seats in limited places. flights.

Beijing announced late last month that it would scrap the quarantine requirement for overseas arrivals and ease restrictions that limited international flight capacity from January 8, while authorities have confirmed Thursday plans to reopen the border with Hong Kong to the same day.
For international travel to China, Beijing has not yet given the green light to foreign tourists, and inbound travelers will be required to show a negative Covid test result obtained within 48 hours of departure.

But the policy change both streamlines the entry process for eligible travelers and will also see authorities begin to process passport applications from Chinese citizens for tourism outside China, which had been restricted to discourage foreign travel. ‘approval.

The rule change, announced late last month, has sparked a surge of interest in China, with bookings for trips abroad during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, which begins on January 21 this year. , up 540% from a year ago, according to data from Chinese travel platform Trip.com Group.

“A lot of people are very interested in taking their family for a great vacation after three years of lockdown,” Trip.com Group CEO Jane Sun told CNN on Monday, highlighting the vacation week ahead as another driver. .

Meanwhile, China’s travel industry was preparing for the expected rebound in travel, Sun said.

“We expect that for the first quarter or two of (2023) it will take some time for airlines and hotels to rehire staff and build infrastructure. infrastructure will be back to normal,” she said.

Travelers wait for their luggage at the baggage claim area of ​​Shanghai Pudong International Airport as China lifts quarantine requirements for international arrivals on January 8, 2023 in Shanghai, China.

Travelers wait for their luggage at the baggage claim area of ​​Shanghai Pudong International Airport as China lifts quarantine requirements for international arrivals on January 8, 2023 in Shanghai, China.

VCG/Visual China Group/VCG/Getty Images

Restrictions imposed by other countries

However, some travelers will need to take a Covid test before leaving China to comply with rules set by other countries. A number of countries have implemented Covid testing requirements for travelers from China, citing a lack of data on strains circulating amid the country’s ongoing Covid-19 outbreak.

On Sunday, another Beijing resident surnamed He expressed relief at the ease of travel as he prepared to take his family to Macau for a holiday before the Lunar New Year.

Compared to last summer, when he also left China, finding tickets and preparing travel documents was much easier, he said.

“Now it’s faster. You can just buy a ticket, renew (your travel permit) and go…and then you can start your own life the same day you land,” he said.

But others, like Hong Kong resident Anthony Chan, who traveled to the mainland to attend a cousin’s wedding, lamented the time wasted when it came to seeing loved ones and being able to live life as usual.

The 18-year-old said he had not been able to see his extended family across the border for around three years amid other restrictions on daily life due to pandemic controls.

“The policy (continues) to harm our lives in recent years…it’s not (that) we’re afraid of this Covid. It’s that we’re afraid of this policy,” he said.

Jadyn Sham, Kathleen Magramo and Cheng Cheng contributed reporting.

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