Beijing, China – Mandy Yang, a marketing professional in Beijing, is all set to travel abroad once China’s borders reopen on January 8.
Yang, 42, and her family renewed their passports in November and were recently looking for flights to Chiang Mai in Thailand.
For Yang, like for many other Chinese, it will be her first overseas trip since China closed its borders in March 2020.
“Once I travel, I want to experience the local customs and cuisine,” Yang told Al Jazeera. “I don’t need to buy luxury items, but I will choose to spend my money on four or five star hotels.”
Not only does Yang appreciate the history and culture of Chiang Mai, which was founded in the 13th century as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom, but she was also impressed when she saw the Thai Ministry of Tourism propose to provide free COVID-19 Offer 19 vaccine boosters to attract tourists. . On the Chinese social media platform WeChat, articles about the so-called “free vaccine package” are getting a lot of attention.
“The strategies may differ, but the bottom line is that these countries want to keep their citizens healthy and safe first,” Yang said, adding that she planned to get a booster shot during her trip. “Only then can tourists also feel safe.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic plunged the country into isolation, China was the world’s largest outbound tourism market, with tourists spending more than $127.5 billion in 2019.
Following China’s announcement on Tuesday that it would scrap quarantine for arrivals as part of lifting its strict “zero-COVID” policy, Trip.com reported a 254 percent increase in outbound bookings compared to the previous day .
On Wednesday, China’s immigration authorities announced they will also resume processing passport applications and issuing entry and exit permits for travelers to and from Hong Kong, which has a different immigration system than mainland China.
However, after nearly three years at home, Chinese travelers are facing a growing list of restrictions abroad.
The United States, South Korea, Japan, India, Italy and Taiwan have introduced COVID testing for travelers from China in recent days amid concerns that rising cases in the country could lead to the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Chinese state media has labeled the measures as “discriminatory”, while some health experts question their necessity.
While Thailand, which welcomed more than 10 million Chinese visitors annually before the pandemic, has not announced any new restrictions, the prospect of a large influx of travelers with COVID-19 has caused some anxiety in the Southeast Asian country.
“We should have some guards … and tests should be done to find out what kind of variants are coming in from China to find out if they are more serious than the variants found in Thailand,” Chaturon Chaisang, a former deputy prime minister and a senior member of Pheu Thai’s main opposition party, told the Thai Enquirer on Tuesday.
A 32-year-old university adviser in Beijing, who wished to remain anonymous, said she planned to visit Japan this spring but was postponed by the restrictions.
“I really want to visit Tokyo, but when I saw the news on Weibo about the restrictions, I knew it wasn’t the right time to go there,” she told Al Jazeera. “I can not help it. Maybe I’ll stay in Beijing or go on a trip somewhere in China this summer.”
Leon Liu, who operates a number of travel agencies in China, said he finds other countries’ measures “quite normal and understandable” and doesn’t expect them to last long. Liu said he expects a “buffer period” of three to six months after the Chinese New Year festivities before Chinese tourists can return to pre-pandemic travel levels.
“Most airlines I’ve spoken to say they have plans for a recovery in April,” Liu told Al Jazeera. “In our case, we hired new employees and started training them to prepare for the tourists who will be traveling abroad.”
Liu said he does not expect the tourism industry to see a strong rebound during the “buffer period” due to the possibility of sudden regulatory changes.
Crystal Zhou, a tour operator in Beijing, said her business is still reeling from the recession of the past three years.
Zhou said she has yet to see a substantial increase in bookings, though she has received more inquiries from guests seeking information on visas, airline tickets and travel rules abroad.
For now, she is cautious about the effect of the planned reopening in China.
“Of course we are happy about the reopening, but on the other hand, we are really concerned about the health of our guests because there has never been such a rapid policy change before,” Zhou told Al Jazeera.
Despite the imminent lifting of border restrictions, Liu advises clients to “stay in China and spend the upcoming Spring Festival holiday with family.”
“First wait for the situation to normalize,” he said. “It’s the best for everyone.”
As for Yang, who is still looking for the cheapest tickets to Thailand, she hopes the convenience of pre-pandemic travel returns with a bang in 2023.
“I hope the changes like testing and quarantine won’t happen again,” she said. “I want to live and travel like before. After all, I am lucky that I can go outside now.”