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BEIJING: Chinese people, cut off from the rest of the world for three years by stringent COVID-19 curbs, flocked to travel sites on Tuesday ahead of borders reopening next month, even as rising infections strained the health system and roiled the economy.
Zero-COVID measures in place since early 2020 – from shuttered borders to frequent lockdowns – last month fuelled the Chinese mainland’s biggest show of public discontent since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.
His subsequent abrupt U-turn on the curbs, which have battered the $17-trillion economy, the world’s second-largest, means the virus is now spreading largely unchecked across the country of 1.4 billion people.
Official statistics, however, showed only one COVID death in the seven days to Monday, fuelling doubts among health experts and residents about the government’s data. The numbers are inconsistent with the experience of much less populous countries after they re-opened.
Doctors say hospitals are overwhelmed with five-to-six times more patients than usual, most of them elderly. International health experts estimate millions of daily infections and predict at least one million COVID deaths in China next year.
Nevertheless, Chinese authorities are determined to dismantle the last vestiges of their zero-COVID policies.
In a major step towards freer travel – cheered by global stock markets on Tuesday – China will stop requiring inbound travelers to go into quarantine from Jan. 8, the National Health Commission (NHC) said late on Monday.
“It finally feels as if China has turned the corner,” AmCham China Chairman Colm Rafferty said of the imminent lifting of the quarantine rule.
There are no official restrictions on Chinese people going abroad but the new rule will make it much easier for them to return home.
Travel platform Ctrip’s data showed that within half an hour of the news searches for popular cross-border destinations had increased 10-fold. Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea were the most sought-after, Ctrip said.
Data from Trip.com showed outbound flight bookings were up 254% early on Tuesday from the day before.
China’s National Immigration Administration said on Tuesday that it would resume processing passport applications of Chinese nationals seeking to travel abroad and approving visits of mainland residents to Hong Kong.
China will also resume the implementation of a policy allowing visa-free transit of up to 144 hours for travelers. The extension or renewal of foreigners’ visas will also be restored, the immigration administration added.