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China reopens to tourists but getting there isn’t easy

ASSOCIATED PRESS / FEB. 28
                                Visitors look at shops selling trinkets and souvenirs along a tourist shopping street in Beijing in February.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS / FEB. 28

Visitors look at shops selling trinkets and souvenirs along a tourist shopping street in Beijing in February.

When the Chinese government announced last month that it would fully reopen its borders to foreign travelers, the news came as a jolt of relief to the millions of Chinese immigrants overseas who have been separated from their relatives since 2020.

But a flood of visitors has yet to arrive. Many people are struggling to even book a plane ticket, stymied by high prices and a lack of direct flights.

Liu Wei, 62, who lives in San Diego, recently spent hours at a local travel agency filling out a pile of paperwork to obtain a long-term visa to China. After searching for weeks for a flight, she bought a ticket for later this month to reunite with her sisters in the northeastern port city of Dalian. Round-trip business-class tickets from San Diego to Dalian cost between $6,000 and $10,000, she said, double what she typically paid before the pandemic.

“I miss the choice and the freedom to go back and forth,” said Liu, who used to visit China every summer. “It’s been such a tragedy for us to not be able to go back to our own country.”

For nearly three years, China maintained some of the harshest travel restrictions in the world, largely sealing off its borders to business travelers, tourists and relatives of Chinese nationals. The ruling Communist Party enforced a “zero COVID” policy, attempting to eradicate the coronavirus with prolonged lockdowns and mass testing.

Overseas visitors who did manage to enter China were sometimes forced to quarantine for up to two months at their own expense. Some travelers even had to undergo anal swab COVID testing, triggering protests from governments outside China.

China’s isolation had broad ripple effects. Universities shut down academic exchanges with the mainland, and multinational companies shifted their supply chains to other countries. The millions of Chinese immigrants overseas — in countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada and Malaysia — suffered the heaviest emotional cost, unable to return home to care for sick parents or bury relatives who died during the pandemic.

In December, China abruptly ended its “zero COVID” policy and soon began to ease border restrictions, removing quarantine requirements for international arrivals. The following month, business travelers were allowed to return on special visas.

The biggest barrier came down last month when the Chinese government resumed issuing tourist visas. China has also said it would reinstate the 10-year visas that had been suspended during the pandemic, facilitating the travel of many overseas visitors.

In a sign of pent-up demand, right after the Chinese government announced the loosened restrictions, searches on Expedia.com for travel from the United States to mainland China jumped around 40% from a month earlier, according to data provided by the online travel company.

Jessie Huang, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, hopes to visit China this summer but has struggled to find tickets under $2,000. Huang, 52, has not seen her 86-year-old father, who lives on an island off the coast of Shanghai, in seven years. She was supposed to visit in early 2020 after he suffered a stroke.

Huang has kept in touch with him through WeChat, the Chinese messaging app. She sometimes feels heartbroken after their conversations, sensing that each passing year becomes harder for him.

“I’m just missing my family,” she said.

Prices have stayed high partly because airlines have been slow to ramp up their flights to China. Globally, the number of flights into China in March were only about one-quarter of what they were in the same month in 2019, according to Cirium, an aviation data provider.

Routes between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, have been capped because of geopolitical tensions. During the pandemic, the two rivals suspended each other’s flights in a political tit-for-tat, and airlines need the approval of both countries’ aviation authorities to increase routes.

U.S. and European carriers are not as eager to resume all of their pre-pandemic flights to China, aviation analysts say. Since invading Ukraine more than a year ago, Russia has banned the U.S. and European carriers from flying through its airspace, meaning flights to China now require longer routes with more fuel and flight crew.

U.S. carriers have been lobbying Washington to force Chinese airlines, which are still flying over Russia, to use the same routes as their American competitors, arguing that they have an unfair cost advantage.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Transportation did not provide comment on when routes to China might increase.

Direct flights between the United States and mainland China are hard to get. Last month, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines both resumed direct flights to Shanghai from hubs in Detroit, Seattle and Dallas, but only a handful of times per week. United Airlines operates a direct flight from San Francisco to Shanghai four times a week. None of the airlines has any direct flights between the United States and Beijing.

Aviation analysts say airlines are also hesitant to add flights when other hurdles are dampening the demand to fly into China.

A negative PCR test for COVID-19 within 48 hours of departure is still mandatory for citizens of many countries to enter China. And the sudden changes in China’s border policies have left consulates around the world struggling to handle paperwork for visas, which are required for all overseas travelers to and from China.

Another factor that has slowed the rebound in flights into China is the fact that most of them before the pandemic were filled with Chinese tourists returning home. About 20% of Chinese passports expired during the pandemic, according to data from consulting firm McKinsey, resulting in lengthy waits for renewals that have delayed the recovery in outbound travel.

But the gates are gradually opening.

Bookings for group tours have surged for a holiday break in China in early May, according to Ctrip, a Chinese online travel agency. The top destinations included Thailand, Egypt and Switzerland, Ctrip said.

For now, the visitors who can most afford to fly to China are business travelers, who have been filling up premium cabins into the mainland.

China has rolled out the red carpet for foreign business officials, part of an effort to revive its economy after years of COVID lockdowns. Dozens of chief executives, including Tim Cook of Apple, flew to Beijing to attend last month’s China Development Forum, where China’s newly elected premier, Li Qiang, pledged that “the door to China’s opening will grow wider.”

Many executives are eager to visit with employees and suppliers for the first time since 2020.

A February survey of 43 American companies showed that 50% of chief executives planned to visit China in the first half of this year, according to the U.S.-China Business Council, a trade group in China.

“The Chinese government has sent some signals for support about private companies, but at the same time, it’s a tense geopolitical environment,” said Jack Kamensky, a senior director at the business council.

Some business owners were more hopeful about China’s reopening.

For over a decade, Keith Collea, a film technology entrepreneur, worked in China’s budding film industry on movies like the 2014 action film “The Monkey King.” His latest project, which involved providing visual effect equipment to Chinese amusement parks, was halted when he was shut out of the country during a trip to Los Angeles in 2020.

Now, Collea is planning a long-awaited return. He was confident his projects would resume once he reunited with his former investors and partners.

“Doing business in China is not something you can do over the phone from the United States,” he said. “You have to sit with people, you have to go to dinners, you have to drink a lot. You have to invest and grow relationships there.”

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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