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As ‘COVID zero’ unravels, some Chinese still fear traveling abroad

Beijing, China – Zhou Jing, a 36-year-old business owner in China’s Hebei province, is relieved that Beijing has started to undo its harsh “zero-COVID” strategy.

After taking strict precautions to avoid COVID-19 for the past three years, Zhou finally tested positive for the virus earlier this month as cases spiked across the country.

Unlike millions of Chinese affected by the virus early in the pandemic, Zhou was able to recover at home rather than in a quarantine center.

Earlier this month, Beijing announced it would “optimize” its COVID policies by allowing mild cases to quarantine at home, as well as limit lockdowns, eliminate mass testing and lift restrictions on domestic travel.

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Zhou was glad to be able to face the disease surrounded by her loved ones and is happy to know that in the future she will not be restricted from doing daily errands like going to the supermarket.

Still, Zhou, who runs a small travel agency, isn’t likely to be traveling much farther than home any time soon.

For Zhou, international travel, something he did at least twice a year before 2020, is off the table for the foreseeable future due to the risk of the virus, even if borders reopen in the coming weeks or months.

“I know now you can get COVID-19 anywhere, but at least here in China, I will be with my family,” Zhou told Al Jazeera. “Here, the current variant [Omicron] seems more stable. If I go abroad, I fear that the virus may mutate.”

Zhou isn’t the only one feeling apprehensive.

Pandemic workers in white hazmat suits gather outside a Beijing apartment block where people are in home quarantine.  They are standing in front of blue tents and are about to start their turn.
China has begun to undo its strict “zero-COVID” policy [Thomas Peter/Reuters]

In a survey of 4,000 Chinese consumers conducted by consultancy Oliver Wyman in late October, more than half of respondents said they planned to postpone overseas travel even if borders were to reopen tomorrow, citing fear of infection as the main concern.

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“People have become cautious,” Imke Wouters, a retail and consumer goods partner at the consultancy, told the Reuters news agency. “So even when they can travel, we don’t think they’ll be back right away.”

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Such nervousness could challenge the international tourism market’s fledgling recovery from the pandemic, which has been held back by China’s ongoing border closures. China’s population spent $288 billion on international travel in 2018, nearly a quarter of global tourism spending.

Other data suggests that the Chinese may be eager to travel as long as the government lifts its myriad restrictions on entering and leaving the country.

Dragon Trail International, which focuses on China’s outbound travel market, surveyed 1,003 people on the mainland between November 7 and 20 and found that more than half of those surveyed would go abroad within a year of the reopening.

That survey found that “quarantine, strict policies and inconvenience,” rather than fear of the virus, were the biggest barriers to travel, with 60 percent of respondents expressing hope that the quarantine on arrival will be relaxed. .

Lily Zhang, a small business owner in Tianjin, said she was ready to travel abroad alone and do business with international clients in 2023. But she said she is less confident that she can travel with her family, especially since her husband returned to Tianjin. last month after nearly three years of being stranded in the Philippines.

“I don’t mind getting hit by COVID-19 anymore, even if I get it from abroad,” Zhang told Al Jazeera. “But it would be difficult if our children got sick because it would become an additional responsibility. We hope to have the rules clear upon arrival so that we can decide to travel as a family.”

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Simon He, who is studying for a postgraduate degree in Denmark, said he decided to return to China in January for an exchange program in Shanghai despite obstacles, including eight days of quarantine upon arrival.

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After contracting COVID-19 in October, he is confident he can control the disease if he catches it at home and hopes to travel next year.

“Getting COVID-19 is inevitable,” he said. “Although cases may peak during the Spring Festival holidays, I think things will get better. I will consider traveling more after that.”

People enjoying the beach in Hainan, China.
Some travel experts believe that domestic tourism hotspots like Hainan are poised for a comeback. [John Ruwitch/Reuters]

For some Chinese, domestic travel can be a substitute for a vacation abroad.

“The recent lifting of restrictions on domestic travel in China bodes very well for the recovery of Chinese domestic tourism in the coming months and beyond,” Sienna Parulis-Cook, director of marketing and communications at Dragon, told Al Jazeera. trail.

Parulis-Cook said Hainan was likely to return as a domestic getaway, as were Zhangjiakou, Chongli and other popular “winter tourism” spots, though she cautioned that “no destination [is] immune” from the effect of a possible reimplementation of strict policies.

But Josie Chen, a travel agency operator, expects domestic tourism, especially high-end luxury hotels and ski resorts, to take a hit from 2023 because “many Chinese are eager to get out.” Data from her company indicates that most wealthy Chinese travel to European or North American countries to buy luxury items.

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“Everyone hopes that the borders will reopen soon, but somehow this is not good for our business,” Chen told Al Jazeera. “National travel agencies need to once again explore the market and change our business model if we are to survive another year.”

Parulis-Cook believes that expectations around Chinese domestic and outbound travel “will be adjusted accordingly.”

“The change in messaging in China now from officials and the media, to emphasize that COVID-19 is actually a very mild disease, should also go a long way to allay any virus-related fears about traveling abroad. “, said.

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Both Chen and Parulis-Cook said Hong Kong is the first choice Chinese travelers contact.

China’s border with Hong Kong has been effectively closed since early 2020, though the Asian financial hub last week lifted a three-day monitoring period under which international arrivals were barred from entering bars and restaurants immediately after their departure. arrival.

Chen said Southeast Asian countries could see an influx of Chinese travelers next year.

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Parulis-Cook said she expects the five-day Labor Day holiday in April and May to be the first major period for overseas travel.

Still, Zhou feels it won’t be the right time to travel until the coronavirus “is weakened or contained globally.”

“Many young people who haven’t traveled for a few years will be eager to get out,” Zhou said. “But my biggest worry is when they get sick after going abroad. They may come back with a more extreme variant, and that will only cause more problems for everyone.”

For others like Zhang, life must go on.

“I don’t want COVID-19 to bother me anymore,” Zhang said, adding that he hopes the Chinese learn to live with the coronavirus. “I just ignore it. My life is not meant to be just about the pandemic.”

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