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It's easier to travel to China — as Beijing lifts more COVID pandemic rules

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

Forced quarantine has been a centerpiece of China's response to COVID-19 for almost three years now, but no longer. As of yesterday, it got a lot easier to get into China. We've got NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch on the line. John, how significant is this new policy, say, for the day-to-day life in China?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, about a month ago, China started dismantling its "zero-COVID" policy. And this is really a big step. It marks the end of what started in 2020 when the government effectively closed its borders and started quarantining inbound passengers. Those quarantines varied from five days to as many as three weeks. And now things are just shifting back to normal. I chatted with Sjoerd den Daas, who's a journalist with NOS, the Dutch public broadcaster. He had just crossed the border from Hong Kong into China. Tens of thousands of people did so yesterday. It was a piece of cake, he said. Before, let me tell you, crossing this border literally took hours. You had PCR tests and paperwork and waiting and then more waiting and then a bus to a mystery quarantine hotel. But he said he was out in about 15 or 20 minutes on the other side, just like the pre-pandemic normal for the first time in three years.

SJOERD DEN DAAS: I am waiting for a DiDi, an Uber, to get to the hotel. I actually have to say I'm a little disoriented, used to, like, being picked up, sent to a quarantine hotel and make plans for the next couple of weeks or months.

RUWITCH: Yeah. It's really hard to overstate how big a change this is.

BROWN: So, John, does that mean anybody can just go to China now, the rules have changed that much?

RUWITCH: Well, the authorities are taking it step by step. They don't appear to have resumed issuing new tourist visas right away. They say they're facilitating visas for students, for businessmen and women, people going into China to visit relatives. Also flights, they were trimmed way back during the pandemic, and capacity was cut on flights. China says those capacity limits are removed and that there will be a phased-in increase of flights. So that'll take some time.

At that Hong Kong-China border crossing, thousands crossed, but there are still limits on the numbers. That's going to be changing in the coming weeks and days. And we're talking about the people getting into China. A lot of the border flow that China sees is people leaving the country. Chinese tourists have become a huge force in recent years. For most of the pandemic, China stopped issuing passports to Chinese citizens for tourism. That's changing now, and there's pent-up demand. When the policy change was announced a little over a week ago, the Chinese travel site trip.com said it saw a huge boom in online searches for travel to places like South Korea, Thailand, places popular with Chinese tourists. But it'll take time.

BROWN: And lifting the COVID travel restrictions, what about the economic implications? We know factory workers were sorely affected, right?

RUWITCH: Yeah. This is not going to be a panacea for the economy, which faces lots of big issues. But border closures have been a big drag, and they've been a problem for people like Dakota Adams. He's got a startup in Santa Cruz, Calif., that designs and makes portable blenders for protein shakes and making margaritas on the go. He says it's been exceedingly tough to build out and manage his production line in China with the border so hard to cross.

DAKOTA ADAMS: Zoom is OK for teleconferencing if you're, you know, an office worker, but building real, physical products, it doesn't really work if you're not able to go over there.

RUWITCH: He's been to China once since 2020. Normally, he's going once a month. They're finally shipping products this month. He says they're about a year behind schedule, but he's hopeful that things are going to get back on track.

ADAMS: We're very excited about the reopening, so we're immediately rebooking tickets to get over there as soon as we can.

RUWITCH: The problem for him at the moment, though, is that he says basically everyone he knows in China has COVID.

BROWN: Wow. NPR's John Ruwitch, thank you.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dwane Brown
Dwane Brown is a multiple award-winning newscaster for NPR and joined the network in December 2015. He is the first newscaster to broadcast from NPR West in Culver City, California. His newscasts air during All Things Considered.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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