China says it will resume issuing passports for tourism travel in another big step away from antivirus controls that isolated the country for almost three years, setting up a potential flood of Chinese going abroad for this month’s Lunar New Year holiday.
The announcement at year end adds to abrupt changes that are rolling back some of the world’s strictest antivirus controls as President Xi Jinping’s government tries to reverse an economic slump. Rules that confined millions of people to their homes kept China’s infection rate low but fuelled public frustration and crushed economic growth.
The latest decision could send free-spending Chinese tourists to revenue-starved destinations in Asia and Europe for the Lunar New Year, which begins January 22 and usually is the country’s busiest travel season. But it also presents a danger they might spread COVID-19 as infections surge in China.
Travel services companies Trip.com and Qunar said international ticket bookings and searches for visa information on their websites rose five to eight times after the December 27 announcement. Top destinations included Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the United States, Britain and Australia.
Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan have responded to the Chinese wave of infections by requiring virus tests for visitors from China.
China stopped issuing visas to foreigners and passports to its own people at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
The National Immigration Administration of China said it will start taking applications on January 8 for passports for tourists to go abroad.
The agency said it will take applications to extend, renew or reissue visas, but gave no indication when they might be issued to first-time applicants.
China will “gradually resume” admitting foreign visitors, the agency said. It gave no indication when tourist travel from abroad might resume.
The changes will “create better conditions for orderly cross-border travel” and “bring more benefits to global economic development”, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
China will “work with all countries” to “restore safety and stability to global industrial and supply chains and promote world economic recovery,” Wang said.
Health experts and economists expect the ruling Communist Party to keep limits on travel into China until at least mid-2023, while it carries out a campaign to vaccinate millions of elderly people. Experts say that is necessary to prevent a public health crisis.
During the pandemic, Chinese with family emergencies or work travel deemed important could obtain passports, but some students and business people with visas to go to foreign countries were blocked by border guards from leaving. The handful of foreign business people and others who were allowed into China were quarantined for up to one week.
Before the pandemic, China was the biggest source of foreign tourists for most of its Asian neighbours and an important market for Europe and the United States.
The government has dropped or eased most quarantine, testing and other restrictions within China, joining the United States, Japan and other governments in trying to live with the virus instead of stamping out transmission.
Japan and India have begun requiring virus tests for travellers from China. South Korea tests all visitors with elevated temperatures. South Korea says anyone who tests positive will be quarantined at home or in a hotel for a week.
South Korean officials said possible additional measures for arrivals from China will be announced on Friday.
US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to relate internal discussions, said Washington is considering taking similar steps.
Taiwan announced that starting January 1 visitors from China will be tested.
Hong Kong authorities said they would scrap some of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions, including PCR tests for all inbound travellers and vaccination requirements to enter certain venues. The easing comes as the southern city prepares for a reopening of borders with mainland China.
The Chinese government will remove quarantine requirements for travellers arriving from abroad, also effective January 8. Foreign companies welcomed the change as an important step to revive slumping business activity.
Business groups have warned that global companies were shifting investment away from China because foreign executives were blocked from visiting.
The American Chamber of Commerce in China says more than 70 per cent of companies that responded to a poll this month expect the impact of the latest wave of outbreaks to last no more than three months, ending in early 2023.
The government has stopped reporting nationwide case numbers, but announcements by some cities indicate at least tens, and possibly hundreds, of millions of people might have been infected since the surge began in early October.
Experts have forecast one million to two million deaths in China through to the end of 2023.
Also on Monday, the government downgraded the official seriousness of COVID-19 and removed it from a list of illnesses that require quarantine. It said the authorities would stop tracking close contacts and designating areas as being at high or low risk of infection.