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: Chinese have been snapping up flights abroad as Beijing puts zero-COVID restrictions in the rearview mirror and Chinese New Year nears

Chinese began rushing at year-end to book international trips as Beijing lifted restrictions on re-entering the country from abroad.

Minutes after authorities announced they would end quarantine and testing requirements for inbound passengers, the country’s top travel sites were flooded with searches, and bookings, for overseas flights.

The scramble for the exits comes after China in December lifted domestic COVID restrictions, causing a massive wave of infections across the country, which had been nearly virus-free for much of the pandemic due to rigid control measures.

Searches on major online travel platform Qunar reportedly leapt by nearly 700% in the minutes after the loosening of return requirements. Bookings on the main platform run by Trip.com
TCOM,
-3.22%
,
which owns Qunar, reportedly jumped more than 300% the following day.

On Fliggy, the travel platform of Alibaba Group Holding
BABA,
-1.56%
,
overseas flight searches jumped more than 800% that week, with a three-year high for inbound search inquiries, Chinese media outlet Guancha reported.

Most travelers seemed bound for foreign locations within the region. Top destinations include Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, according to Trip.com data.

Beijing-based animator Li Yuanyuan said she had bought a round-trip ticket to Thailand’s beach getaway Phuket.

Li, who said she traveled abroad at least once a year before the pandemic — and before China’s draconian border restrictions — said: “I haven’t left the country in three years. This trip [scheduled for January] is partly a vacation, but also to escape the COVID chaos.”

On Tuesday, the Chinese government said it would begin taking applications for new tourism passports in the second week of January. The country had halted passport issuance in early 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to stop people from leaving as well as entering the country and spreading the virus.

China has of late experienced the world’s largest explosion of COVID infections, at an estimated million-plus per day, according to minutes released from a December meeting of China’s National Health Commission.

As China had been sealed off from the world for nearly the entire duration of the pandemic, the country had little natural immunity up until the beginning of this month, when officials suddenly dropped domestic restrictions such as central isolation for patients, daily testing and the need to show a digital “green pass” to enter most public facilities.

Authorities said in December that, beginning on Jan. 8, foreign arrivals would no longer be subject to quarantine, and airlines that bring in passengers who test positive will not be penalized — a measure that had riled passenger carriers for the past year.

Inbound travelers will also no longer need a health-code permit from Chinese embassies abroad, nor will they be required to get a PCR test upon arrival. However, passengers will still need to show proof of a negative nucleic-acid test within 48 hours before flight departures.

Chinese New Year — often dubbed the world’s largest period of domestic migration — begins Jan. 21 and lasts into February. Traditionally, workers and students flock to their hometowns for the duration of the break, feasting with extended family and giving gifts of fruit, liquor and cash-stuffed red envelopes.

Several Chinese workers told MarketWatch they will forgo returning home this New Year and instead use their time off to travel abroad.

“I’ve spent the last three [Chinese] New Years in my hometown with my parents and grandparents,” said Yang Yi, a 27-year-old masseuse from the western metropolis of Chengdu. “This year I’m finally going to see friends in Seoul.”

Inbound and outbound ticket prices remained exorbitant for much of the pandemic, as few international flights were operating in China. But prices will normalize in the coming months, with China departures and arrivals peaking next summer, Qunar’s data research chief, Lan Xiang, was quoted as having told Chinese media in late December.

However, with China’s explosion of infections, and its years-long restrictions on inbound foreigners, other countries appear to be putting up hurdles for prospective Chinese travelers.

Japan, India, Italy and South Korea have all said they would be imposing tighter COVID-testing requirements on tourists from China.

Coronavirus Update: China takes first steps to punish countries that imposed testing mandates for Chinese travelers

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