China begins gradual border reopening as it ends strict zero Covid policy

Passengers prepare to board a flight at the airport in north-central China's Jiangxi province on Nov. 1, 2022. The Chinese government said Tuesday, Dec. 27 it will start issuing new passports as it dismantles anti-virus travel barriers, setting up a potential flood of millions of tourists out of China for next month's Lunar New Year holiday. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
China lifting travel controls could bring a flood of tourists travelling there to ring in the Lunar New Year. Credit: AP

China says it will resume issuing passports to allow its citizens to travel abroad in a big step away from Covid controls.

The move sets up a potential flood of Chinese tourists visiting destinations in Asia and Europe for next month's Lunar New Year holiday.

China's National Immigration Administration said the government will "gradually resume" allowing foreign visitors into the country, but it gave no indication when full-scale tourism would continue.

Chinese authorities said earlier this week that they would drop the need for passengers arriving from abroad to quarantine from January 8.

It comes after Beijing abruptly abandoned its hard-line zero Covid policy earlier this month in the face of widespread protests, and as President Xi Jinping tried to reverse an economic slump.

An officer collects passports for renewal and re-applications at a Beijing police station. Credit: AP

China kept infections comparatively far lower than most countries for nearly three years, but such a sudden shift in strategy means the People's Republic now faces a wave in infections.

Having enforced such strict lockdown rules for so long, there is a relatively lower level of natural immunity in the country, and many - particularly older citizens – haven’t felt the need to get vaccinated.

Before the pandemic, China was the biggest source of foreign tourists for most of its Asian neighbours, and Lunar New Year, which begins on January 22, is usually the country’s busiest travel season.

Travel services companies and Qunar said international ticket bookings and searches for visa information on their websites rose five to eight times after Tuesday's announcement.

Top destinations included Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the United States, Britain and Australia.

China stopped issuing passports to citizens in early 2020. Credit: AP

Some countries are cautious given China's current Covid wave, with a handful of territories have begun requiring tests specifically for travellers arriving from the country.

Japan and India have already begun requiring virus tests for visitors from China, and Taiwan has said the same requirement will come into force from January 1.

South Korea already tests all visitors with elevated temperatures and requires those who test positive to quarantine at home or in a hotel for a week.

But officials in Seoul said possible additional measures for arrivals from China will be announced on Friday.

Passengers prepare to board a flight at the airport in north-central China's Jiangxi province. Credit: AP

China stopped issuing visas to foreigners and passports to its own people at the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

The National Immigration Administration of China said it will start taking applications from 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.

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.

During the pandemic, Chinese citizens with family emergencies or work travel deemed important enough could obtain passports.

But some students and businesspeople with visas to go to foreign countries were blocked by border guards from leaving.

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The handful of foreign businesspeople and others who were allowed into China were quarantined for up to one week.

Foreign companies have welcomed the easing of travel curbs as an important step to revive slumping business activity.

Business groups had warned that firms were shifting investment away from China due to executives being prevented from visiting.

The Chinese government has stopped reporting nationwide case numbers, but at least tens and possibly hundreds of millions of people are thought to have become infected since the surge began in early October.

Experts have forecast 1 million to 2 million Covid-related deaths in China through the end of 2023.

Despite this, the Chinese government downgraded the official seriousness of Covid-19 on Monday and removed it from a list of illnesses that require quarantine.

It said authorities would stop tracking close contacts and designating areas as being at high or low risk of infection.