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Jubilant Chinese Plan Trips as Inbound COVID Quarantine Set to End

FILE - A woman waits in the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong on Dec. 8, 2022.
FILE - A woman waits in the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong on Dec. 8, 2022.

People in China reacted with joy and rushed to book flights overseas Tuesday after Beijing said it would scrap mandatory Covid quarantine for overseas arrivals, ending almost three years of self-imposed isolation.

In a snap move late Monday, China said from January 8 inbound travelers would no longer be required to quarantine on arrival in a further unwinding of hardline coronavirus controls that had torpedoed its economy and sparked nationwide protests.

Cases have surged nationwide as key pillars of the containment policy have fallen away, with authorities acknowledging the outbreak is "impossible" to track and doing away with much-maligned official case tallies.

Beijing also narrowed the criteria by which Covid fatalities are counted last week, a move experts said would suppress the number of deaths attributable to the virus.

Still, Chinese social media users reacted with joy to the end of restrictions that have kept the country largely closed off to the outside world since March 2020.

One top-voted comment on the Weibo platform proclaimed: "It's over... spring is coming."

"Preparing for my trip abroad!" wrote another user of the Twitter-like site. A third wrote: "I hope the price of the return ticket doesn't rise again!"

Online searches for flights abroad surged on the news, with travel platform Tongcheng seeing an 850 percent jump in searches and a tenfold jump in enquiries about visas, according to state media reports.

Rival platform Group said the volume of searches for popular overseas destinations rose by 10 times year-on-year within half an hour of the announcement. Users were particularly keen on trips to Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand and South Korea.

The announcement effectively brought the curtain down on a zero-Covid regime of mass testing, strict lockdowns and long quarantines that has roiled supply chains and buffeted business engagement with the world's second-largest economy.

"The overwhelming view is just relief," said Tom Simpson, managing director for China at the China-Britain Business Council. "It brings an end to three years of very significant disruption."

An uptick in international trade missions is now expected for next year, he told AFP, although the full resumption of business operations is likely to be "gradual" as airlines slowly bring more flights online and companies tweak their China strategies for 2023.

Nonetheless, the announcement was "very, very welcome", Simpson said.

'Protect themselves'

All passengers arriving in China have had to undergo mandatory centralized quarantine since March 2020. That decreased from three weeks to one week this summer, and to five days last month.

The end of those rules in January will also see Covid-19 downgraded to a Class B infectious disease from Class A, a formal distinction that allows authorities to adopt looser controls.

Some entry restrictions remain in place, with China largely suspending the issuance of visas for overseas tourists and students since the start of the pandemic.

Officials in several major cities have said hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have been infected in the vast new wave in recent weeks.

Beijing's National Health Commission (NHC) said Saturday it would no longer publish daily case figures that had been criticized for failing to reflect the severity of outbreaks.

The winter case surge comes ahead of two major public holidays next month, in which millions of people are expected to travel to their hometowns to reunite with relatives.

Hospitals and crematoriums across the country have been overflowing with Covid patients and victims, with studies estimating around one million people could die over the next few months.

Major cities are grappling with shortages of medicine, while emergency medical facilities are strained by an influx of under-vaccinated elderly patients.

Beijing has insisted the country is prepared to weather the storm and has urged people to take responsibility for their own health.

"We need the public to properly protect themselves, continue to cooperate with the implementation of relevant prevention and control measures," said Liang Wannian, the head of an expert group at the NHC tasked with responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We need to shift the focus of our work from infection prevention and control to medical treatment," he told state news agency Xinhua.