Travelers rush to take advantage of China reopening
BEIJING (AP) — After two years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure to be among the first in line after border crossings reopened Sunday.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions, with travelers arriving from abroad also no longer required to undergo quarantine.
“I’m rushing to get back to her,” Cheung, carrying a heavy suitcase, told The Associated Press as he prepared to cross into Lok Ma Chau station.
Travelers transiting between Hong Kong and mainland China, however, are still required to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 48 hours – a measure China has protested when imposed by other countries.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening, which will allow tens of thousands of people who made previous online bookings through each day, is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.
In a visit to the station on Sunday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the sides would continue to expand the number of crossing points from seven to a full 14.
“The goal is to return as soon as possible to normal life before the epidemic,” Lee told reporters. “We want the cooperation between the two parties to get back on track.”
The Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong, as saying that about 200 passengers were expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 would travel in the other direction initially. reopening day. Tan said a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected over the coming days.
“I stayed up all night and got up at 4:00 a.m. because I’m so excited to go back to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother,” said a woman from Hong Kong, identified only by her last name. , Cheung. arriving in Shenzhen, where she was presented with “roses and health kits”, the paper said.
Hong Kong media reports said around 300,000 travel bookings from the city to mainland China have already been made.
Limited ferry service had also been restored from China’s Fujian province to Taiwan-controlled Kinmen Island, off the Chinese coast.
The border crossing with Russia at Suifenhe in the northern province of Heilongjiang also resumed normal operation, just in time for the opening of the ice festival in the capital Harbin, a major tourist attraction.
However, China’s borders remain largely closed, with only a fraction of the previous number of international flights arriving at major airports.
Beijing’s main international airport, Capital, was expecting eight overseas flights on Sunday, according to the airport. Shanghai, China’s largest city, received its first international flight under the new policy at 6.30am with only a trickle of other international flights to follow.
That number is now expected to rise, with booking requests for overseas flights overwhelming some online travel services ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush later this month. Capital International is preparing to reopen arrivals halls that have been quiet for most of the past three years.
Meanwhile, Shanghai announced it will resume issuing regular passports to Chinese for foreign travel and family visits, as well as renewing and extending visas for foreigners. These restrictions have had a particularly devastating effect on foreign businessmen and students in the main Asian financial center.
China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is bracing for a further spread in less developed areas with the start of China’s most important holiday of the year, which will begin in following.
Authorities say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double over the same period last year, bringing the total numbers closer to those of the 2019 holiday period before the pandemic hit.
Meanwhile, controversy continues over testing requirements imposed on Chinese travelers by foreign governments – most recently Germany and Sweden. On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urged citizens to avoid “unnecessary” travel to China, noting the country’s rise in coronavirus cases and saying China’s health system is “overwhelmed.”
German regulation also allows spot checks on arrival, and Germany, like other European countries, will test sewage from planes for possible new variants of the virus. The measures come into effect at midnight on Monday and will last until April 7.
Apparently concerned about its reputation, China says the testing requirements are not based on science and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health authorities publish a daily count of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19-related deaths.
Authorities say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to test themselves and recover at home, they can no longer provide a complete picture of the state of the latest outbreak.
Government spokesmen have said the situation is under control and reject accusations by the World Health Organization and others that it is not being transparent about the number of cases and deaths or providing other essential information about the nature of the current outbreak that could lead to his appearance. of new variants.
Despite such assertions, the Health Commission on Saturday issued regulations for enhanced monitoring of viral mutations, including testing of urban wastewater. The lengthy rules called for increased data collection by hospitals and local government health departments and increased screening for “pneumonia of unknown cause”.
Criticism has focused largely on the strict enforcement of regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that have seen people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes locked inside without food or adequate medical care.
Anger was also vented over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined for observation to a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor nutrition and hygiene were commonly cited.
The social and economic costs eventually sparked rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease the strictest measures and prioritize growth.
As part of the latest changes, China will also no longer file criminal charges against people accused of violating border quarantine rules, according to an announcement issued by five government departments on Saturday.
The individuals currently in custody will be released and the seized assets will be returned, the announcement states.
The Transport Ministry on Friday urged travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, especially if they include elderly people, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying conditions.
Associated Press reporters Alice Fung and Karmen Li in Hong Kong and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.