China Signals Border Reopening in Early 2023

New rules due to take effect on January 8 will pave the way for an end to mandatory quarantine and other travel restrictions.

Beijing’s iconic Forbidden City on a cold winter’s day. (Photo: Max van den Oetelaar/Unsplash)

The last major country to keep its Covid-related border restrictions may soon welcome back international travelers after three years of isolation. Policy changes unveiled on Monday night by China’s National Health Commission will allow the nation to reconnect with the outside world as soon as next month. It’s the latest step in a dramatic U-turn on Beijing’s “dynamic zero-Covid” policy as Omicron sweeps across China; the publication of daily updates on the domestic Covid-19 situation was formally retired on December 25.

From January 8, authorities will be able to scrap mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers as well as on-arrival PCR testing, and lift all restrictions on the frequencies and occupancy rates of international flights. Mainland Chinese carriers were previously allowed to operate only one flight a week on any route overseas, while foreign airlines could run just one weekly service to China; a quarter of all seats on any China-bound flight had to be kept empty.

Passengers must remain masked on board, and a pre-departure PCR test will still be required within 48 hours of boarding. Those with negative results will be able to enter Mainland China without applying for a health code from Chinese embassies or consulates abroad. Similarly, the central health authority has said it will “restore Chinese citizens’ outbound tourism in an orderly manner.” That could even happen ahead of the Chinese New Year period, in a boon for Southeast Asian countries (such as Thailand and Cambodia) whose tourism sectors have been highly dependent on Chinese visitors in the past.

Within China, Covid-19 will be downgraded to a Category B infectious disease from January 8, with quarantine measures no longer needed for infected individuals, and an end to both the tracing of close contacts and the classification of high- and low-risk areas. Testing will become voluntary, and coronavirus lockdowns are expected to be ditched altogether.

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