China Reopens, But Will Travelers Visit?

On Sunday, January 8, China officially dropped the majority of its “Zero COVID” policies, which included mandatory PCR test requirements for inbound travelers upon arrival and a “Vaccine Pass” that granted access to specified premises. Now, visitors will be required to show only a negative P.C.R. test taken within 48 hours of travel.

According to The New York Times, the end of the “Zero COVID” policies “do not amount to China’s throwing open its borders.” For instance, there will still a limit to the number of international flights arriving in the country (although this number will be relaxed from where it was previously) and visas processing has not yet restarted. That said, it’s essentially the first time the country has been open to travel since the beginning of the pandemic.

While it appears to be a step in the right direction, many are concerned about “an explosion in infections,” as The Times puts it. To begin, mass testing has ended. As well, China reportedly counts COVID deaths differently than most other countries. The country is reporting just under 4,000 new cases daily (and only two deaths), but local authorities are sharing figures that would put those numbers in the millions.

For instance, an official in Zhejiang said that daily COVID cases there had exceeded 1 million; a health minister in Qingdao said there were roughly half a million new cases each day; in Dongguan, a city health commission report estimated there were between 250,000 and 300,000 new cases daily; and officials in Yulin, a recent log recorded 157,000 infected. The Times also reports that China’s “medical system is being pushed to its limits.”

Just before the New Year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it would require negative COVID-19 test or documentation of recovery for air passengers boarding flights to the United States originating from China, Hong Kong and Macau.

Trade Standpoint

Following the CDC’s announcement, Julia Simpson, World Travel & Tourism Council president and CEO, said, “After nearly three years, it is great news that China is finally opening up. Chinese visitors around the world contributed $253 billion to the global economy in 2019, creating jobs and boosting regional economies. The recovery of the Chinese travel and tourism sector is very welcome. Introducing knee-jerk travel restrictions shows governments have learned nothing about the behavior of this virus and continue to ignore the World Health Organization’s advice that border restrictions do not stop the virus mutating or moving around the globe. The reintroduction of ineffective COVID testing to Chinese travelers is a step backwards for the global travel and tourism sector.”

That all said, do Americans have plans to visit China?

Travel Agent reached out to Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands, a luxury tour operator with a  focus in Asia. She tells us that while demand for certain countries like Japan (for Cherry Blossom season), Bhutan and Southeast Asia (from Indochina to Indonesia) are in very high demand, “China is a very different story.”

Heald explains: “Testing is still required. Flights into and out of China are still few. Many people in China have COVID now, and no one is calling us asking to go to China—Hong Kong yes, but Mainland China no. We don’t expect to be sending many people to China until mid to late 2024.”

We also spoke to a representative from Exodus Travels, which specializes in adventure travel, who told us the tour operating is not currently operating in China. The spokesperson said the company might change that this year as it has departures scheduled for later in the summer and onwards.

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