China's long-awaited border reopening - the final step in its dismantling of Covid Zero - is set to spark a homecoming rush for many diaspora, though a full rebound in travel is likely to take longer.
Starting Sunday, China no longer requires quarantine for arrivals after authorities ditched the policy that, along with the exorbitant cost of air fares amid severe capacity constraints, was a major deterrent for travellers. While anyone wanting to enter the country will still need a 48-hour negative Covid test result, the substantial easing in border controls just two weeks before the Lunar New Year holiday marks an end to Beijing's efforts to keep out a virus that's become accepted as endemic across the world.
The immediate impact is a surge of overseas Chinese coming back home, many of whom have not seen family for years.
"I haven't been home in almost two years, so the announcement felt like a fever dream," said Connor Zhao, a 25-year-old consultant who lives in San Francisco. He's currently on holiday in Bangkok and will fly to Qingdao on Jan. 19, with his trip including a layover in Hong Kong, which has more available flights into the mainland.
"I'm very excited to see my parents. Getting to spend Chinese New Year with them means a lot to me," he said.
But the influx of travellers heading into the country is unlikely to be matched by a surge in demand for overseas trips. The flow of Chinese tourists, previously a $280 billion spending force in global holiday hotspots from Paris to Tokyo, will take months if not years to recover to its pre-pandemic level.
A raft of countries has implemented testing requirements on travellers from China after infections surged, and airlines have been reluctant to immediately make major changes to their flight schedule meaning capacity remains tight and prices high.
"The willingness to travel has started to strongly rebound among Chinese," said Chen Xin, head of China leisure and transport research at UBS Securities. "But it still takes time to be reflected in the outbound travel routes."
The reopening of China's borders marks the end of Covid Zero, a strategy that left the world's second-biggest economy isolated for three years and weighed heavily on the economy. While the measures managed to keep the virus at bay for much of the pandemic as it killed millions elsewhere, they became increasingly irrelevant as the emergence of more infectious variants made stamping out the coronavirus all but impossible.
The government began rolling back quarantine, which was stretched arbitrarily by local authorities in parts of China to almost a month at some points in the pandemic, in June last year, with the pace of change quickening after China abruptly abandoned domestic Covid control measures like mass testing and lockdowns in the final months of 2022.
It is the last country to abolish border restrictions, more than a year after early Covid Zero proponents such as Singapore, Australia and New Zealand resumed quarantine-free international travel.
Much of the initial inbound flow is expected to come from Hong Kong, through which many of the diaspora will travel given limited direct flights from global destinations to mainland cities. There's been a rush to secure spots in the daily quota of about 60,000 people allowed to travel northward from the financial hub, including 50,000 via the land borders that separate the two places, though officials have promised that capacity will be raised over time.
As for the resumption of visitation by foreigners and business people to China, the requirement for a negative PCR test and practices like near-universal mask wearing may act as a deterrent in the near term. But for the first time since the virus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, China has rejoined the rest of the world.