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Travel restrictions increase as COVID-hit China prepares to reopen

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  • China to lift quarantine for foreign visitors on Sunday
  • Greece joins nations imposing travel restrictions on China
  • Travel rush and holidays can ignite virus outbreak

SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Jan 6 (Reuters) – More countries around the world are requiring visitors to China to be tested for COVID, days before ending border controls and ushering in an eagerly awaited return for a population that has been largely stuck at home for three years.

Starting Sunday, China will end its quarantine requirement for arriving travelers, the latest dismantling of its “zero-COVID” regime that began last month after historic protests against a suffocating series of mass lockdowns.

But the abrupt changes exposed many of China’s 1.4 billion people to the virus for the first time, triggering a wave of infection that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying medicine shelves and causing international alarm.

Greece, Germany and Sweden joined more than a dozen countries on Thursday in requiring COVID tests from Chinese travelers, as the World Health Organization said China’s official virus data was underestimating the true extent of its outbreak. .

Chinese authorities and state media struck a defiant tone, defending the handling of the outbreak, downplaying the severity of the surge and denouncing foreign travel requirements for its residents.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning warned on Friday of possible reciprocal measures after the European Union recommended pre-departure testing for Chinese passengers.

“The EU should listen more to … rational voices and treat China’s epidemic prevention and control objectively and fairly,” Mao said at a regular media briefing in Beijing.

The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid published by the People’s Daily newspaper, said in an editorial that some Western media and politicians “would never be satisfied” no matter what steps China took.

The global aviation industry, hit by years of pandemic restrictions, has also been critical of decisions to impose tests on travelers from China. China will still require pre-departure testing for travelers arriving after January 8.

HOSPITALS CROWDED

Some Chinese citizens feel the reopening was too hasty.

“They should have taken a number of actions before opening … and at least ensured the pharmacies were well stocked,” said a man in his 70s who gave his last name as Zhao to Reuters in Shanghai.

China reported five new deaths from COVID on the mainland on Thursday, bringing the official death toll from the virus to 5,264, one of the lowest in the world.

But that seemed to be at odds with the local reality, where funeral parlors are overwhelmed and hospitals overcrowded with elderly patients on ventilators. In Shanghai, more than 200 taxi drivers are driving ambulances to meet the demand for emergency services, the Shanghai Morning Post reported.

International health experts believe that Beijing’s narrow definition of COVID deaths does not reflect a true number that could reach more than a million deaths this year.

Investors are optimistic that China’s reopening could eventually reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy suffering its slowest growth in nearly half a century.

Those hopes, along with policy measures to help revive its troubled real estate sector, pushed China’s yuan higher on Friday.

Meanwhile, both China’s top-tier CSI300 Index (.CSI300) and Shanghai Composite Index (.SSEC) gained more than 2% in the first week of trading of the year.

“While reopening is likely to be a bumpy affair amid rising COVID-19 cases and increasingly strained healthcare systems, our economists expect growth momentum in Asia to pick up steam, led by China,” Herald van der Linde , head of HSBC’s equity strategy, Asia-Pacific, said in a note.

OPEN SOUTHEAST ASIA

With the big Lunar New Year holidays at the end of this month, the mainland is also expected to open the border with its Hong Kong special administrative region on Sunday for the first time in three years.

Ferry services between the city and the Macau betting center will resume on the same day.

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways (0293.HK) said on Thursday it would more than double flights to mainland China. Flights to and from China remain at a small fraction of pre-COVID levels.

The WHO has warned that the holiday, which begins on January 21 and usually brings the biggest human migration on the planet, as people return from cities to visit families in small towns and villages, could trigger another wave of infection in the absence of higher vaccinations. . prices and other precautions.

Authorities expect 2.1 billion passenger trips by road, rail, water and air during the holiday, double the 1.05 billion trips made last year during the same period.

The transport ministry urged people to be cautious to minimize the risk of infection for elderly relatives, pregnant women and babies.

One region that is expected to be a major beneficiary of China’s opening up is Southeast Asia, where countries have not required Chinese visitors to take COVID tests.

With the exception of Malaysia and Thailand testing airline wastewater for the virus, the region’s 11 nations will treat Chinese travelers like any other.

Up to 76% of Chinese travel agencies ranked Southeast Asia as their top destination when overseas travel resumed, according to a recent survey by ITB China trade show.

Many people in China have taken to social media to announce their travel plans, but some remain cautious.

“You want to see the world, but the world may not want to see you,” wrote a WeChat user from Tianjin City.

Reporting by Brenda Goh in Shanghai, Bernard Orr, Eduardo Baptista, Martin Pollard and Liz Lee in Beijing, Farah Master in Hong Kong and Xinghui Kok in Singapore; Written by John Geddie and Greg Torode; Editing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Heavens

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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