China to resume issuing visas as it emerges from Covid Zero

An airline worker asks travelers to declare their health information after checking in at the international flight check counter at the Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing on August 24, 2022. China will reopen its borders to tourists and resume issuing all visas on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, after a three-year halt during the pandemic as it sought to boost its tourism and economy.

China will resume issuing visas to tourists and other foreigners, a significant step in the country’s move to rejoin the world and leave its stringent Covid restrictions behind.

The shift comes into force from Wednesday, China’s embassy in the US said in a statement. It will also see visa-free entry into Guangdong province resumed for foreigners in groups from Hong Kong and Macau, and for those on cruise ships stopping in Shanghai.

Reopening to tourists is a highly symbolic sign China is leaving its absolutist Covid Zero regime behind. The strategy, which involved frequent lockdowns, mass testing and an effectively closed border weighed on economic growth, particularly last year. It was abruptly scrapped in early December, after protests across multiple Chinese cities and as the economic hit worsened.

Business travelers have been able to apply for visas for China since Jan. 8, when the country took the first major step toward reopening its once-busy borders by scrapping mandatory quarantine upon arrival. Since then, foreign nationals have been able to apply for business visas to travel to China for commercial activities.

Since abandoning Covid Zero, the Communist Party has been prioritizing a return to strong growth, with China’s new Premier Li Qiang calling for more effort to meet a 5 percent expansion target for 2023 at a meeting of the national legislature this week.

Only 115.7 million inbound and outbound trips were made in 2022—less than a fifth of those flown in 2019 before the pandemic took hold, according to data from China’s Ministry of Public Security. Mainland residents made 64.6 million trips last year, also about a fifth of pre-Covid levels.

Travelers from China were among the biggest spenders globally pre-pandemic, and their absence hammered tourism-reliant nations from Southeast Asia to Europe. The country itself was also seeing a steady increase in foreign tourists before Covid, with market and consumer data provider Statista showing roughly 145.3 million international arrivals in China in 2019, up from 141.2 million the previous year.

Chinese airlines have been ramping up to meet demand since quarantine was eased, adding international routes after the government allowed the resumption of overseas group trips. This year’s number of international flights will be 50 percent-60 percent of the level seen just before the pandemic then exceed that mark in 2024, the China Securities Journal reported, citing an estimate from Citic Securities.

Still, flights each way between the US and China remain capped at 12 a week, a relic of the Covid-era rules. Both governments have to agree to lift the ceiling, put in place amid a disagreement over virus testing protocols.

China has been steadily normalizing its border regime since the move in January.

Authorities loosened Covid test requirements for travelers from a handful of countries including New Zealand, Russia and Malaysia from March. Travelers now only need to provide negative rapid antigen test results before being allowed to board flights to China, and carriers aren’t required to check test results prior to boarding.

China still requires a swathe of countries, including the US, provide negative PCR tests before boarding flights. The US lifted a similar rule for travelers from the country last week, raising prospects China will soon reciprocate. With assistance from Ramsey Al-Rikabi and Dong Lyu/Bloomberg

Image credits: AP/Andy Wong


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