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Chinese travelers are ready to go abroad again. Some countries hesitate

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Hong Kong (CNN) — A growing Covid outbreak in China. Countries imposing travel restrictions on Chinese travelers wary of importing the virus. Scientists warn against fear and xenophobia.

But this is not early 2020. The familiar scene is unfolding now, as China grapples with its biggest-ever outbreak after abandoning its stringent Covid-zero approach and partially reopening its border three years after the pandemic began. .

The country announced this week that it will drop quarantine requirements for international arrivals and resume outbound travel for Chinese nationals, which was previously banned. That sparked a wave of eager travelers booking flights out of the country, eager for a trip after several years of lockdown – but it also sparked concern among some foreign governments as China’s Covid cases soar.

Nearly half of the 212 passengers who arrived at Milan, Italy’s airport from China on Monday have tested positive for Covid, a regional health chief said on Wednesday.

But as countries like the US and Japan move to impose restrictions, others like France and Britain have made it clear they are ready to welcome Chinese travelers – who, before the pandemic, were a major driver of international tourism.

Which countries are imposing testing requirements?

Japan announced on Tuesday that all travelers who have been to mainland China or traveled there within seven days will be tested on arrival starting Friday and that the government will limit the number of flights to and from China.

The country’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, pointed to the lack of official data from the Chinese government. “Although there is information that the infection is spreading rapidly in mainland China, concern is rising in Japan as it is difficult to understand the detailed situation,” he said.

Indian authorities have implemented similar guidelines for travelers not only from China, but also from several nearby locations, including Japan, South Korea and Thailand. The guidelines are aimed at ensuring that Covid does not spread as quickly as it has in China, officials said on Tuesday.

Taiwan also announced mandatory testing on arrival for travelers arriving from mainland China on Wednesday. The autonomous island has banned Chinese tourists from the mainland since the pandemic and only allows Chinese nationals to visit for business or family reasons.

In all three places, positives on arrival will be required to be quarantined for several days.

Meanwhile, the United States has announced that it will require a negative pre-departure test result for travelers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau — as well as popular third-country gateways such as Seoul, Toronto and Vancouver.
People walk with suitcases through the departure hall of Beijing airport on Dec. 27.

People walk with suitcases through the departure hall of Beijing airport on Dec. 27.

KYDPL KYODO/AP

The measures are particularly striking given that most of these places – especially in the West – have long since reopened their borders and dropped testing requirements as part of the transition to living with Covid. China responded on Wednesday by claiming its Covid situation was “under control” and accused Western media of “distorting” its recent policy changes.

In Europe, Italy – the first country on the continent to be hit by a widespread outbreak in 2020 – announced it would require Covid tests for all travelers arriving from China, with the health minister saying it was essential to identify “any variants… . in order to protect the Italian population.”

European Union health security officials will also meet on Thursday to discuss the outbreak in China and any “possible measures”, the EU Commission said on Twitter.

So are variants a risk?

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged the risk of a new variant emerging in “unvaccinated populations”.

“Although (in China) officially they have 90% of the population vaccinated with two doses of the inactivated vaccines, you still have a large percentage of elderly people who are not vaccinated… for more than six months, so their antibody levels are already very high. down,” he said. “So we cannot rule out the possibility that new variants could actually emerge in China and spread to other parts of the world.”

A US federal health official pointed to the speed of the outbreak in China, saying: “With so many people in China becoming infected in such a short period of time, there is a chance and likelihood that a new variant will emerge.”

US officials have also expressed concern about China’s lack of transparency regarding the recent surge in cases, particularly the absence of genome sequencing information that could help detect new strains of the coronavirus.

However, GISEAD, a global virus database, said Chinese authorities had sent more genomic information from recent samples – and that they appeared to match variants that are already circulating globally.

Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, said a country’s best defense against possible variants is to focus on domestic policies that protect its own population – such as stepping up vaccinations, maintaining social distancing and others. basic public health measures.

“In many parts of the world, the pandemic seems to be over … but at the end of the day, (these measures) are what stop the transmission of the virus,” she said.

“If countries are at the point where they think these things are no longer important because, for example, they’ve developed so much population immunity, then why worry about some new cases coming out of China?”

Are the measures effective?

Despite the potential risk, many health experts have widely criticized the new testing requirements as ineffective at best and alarmist at worst.

“I don’t see any compelling reason to justify this change,” said Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So far, we don’t have any evidence to support whether these variants are actually emerging in mainland China.”

“I can understand the concerns about the lack of transparency, about the lack of sharing of genomic sequencing,” he added. “But even with a ban, we cannot stop the spread of the virus. And, assuming there are indeed new variants emerging in mainland China, we would only delay the spread, not stop the virus from spreading to other parts of the world.”

Grepin echoed this point, saying, “In reality, we have no scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of these measures in practice.”

If an infectious variant emerges, it will likely enter the United States through other countries anyway, she said, noting that the restrictions “did very little” when Omicron emerged last fall.

Pre-match testing – which the US is demanding – is also only marginally effective, as many new variants have a short incubation period, meaning “there will still be cases that survive”, she added.

Political pressure and xenophobia

There are a few reasons countries may be imposing such restrictions despite their questionable use, Grepin said — one of which is fears that Chinese Covid patients may be fleeing elsewhere to seek treatment with hospitals at home completely overwhelmed.

But, she added, that’s pretty unlikely. Travel volume from China is still extremely low, in part due to the limited number of flights. And at the rate at which Covid is spreading, it would be a logistical challenge for infected patients to immediately obtain visas and book flights abroad.

Rather, the recent wave of restrictions likely reflects “political pressure (on officials) to look like they’re doing something,” she said. “We see one country do this and other countries follow suit.”

Medical staff treat patients at a hospital in Jiangsu, China, Dec. 28.

Medical staff treat patients at a hospital in Jiangsu, China, Dec. 28.

CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Experts are also warning that singling out China could increase the risk of greater anti-Chinese racism, as seen early in the pandemic, when Asians around the world faced discrimination and violent hate crimes.

China isn’t the only place with an increase in cases, Huang said. “I don’t see why China should be treated any differently than other countries like Australia, for example, which is swimming in Covid,” he added.

The US likely imports tens of thousands of cases from around the world so far, Grepin said, adding that 1 to 3% of all international travelers have Covid – so there’s no point in specifically targeting Covid coming from one country.

“We’ve seen this throughout the pandemic – when certain measures are targeted at people coming from a certain place, it reinforces stereotypes or beliefs that viruses come from certain parts of the world… It’s just not true,” he said. she said.

Which countries are welcoming Chinese travelers back?

On the other hand, many countries opened their doors in welcome.

The tourism departments and embassies of France, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland posted messages on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, inviting Chinese tourists.

“Chinese friends, France welcomes you with open arms!” the French embassy wrote on Weibo. Thailand’s national tourism administration wrote: “Thailand has been waiting for you for three years!”

Many Weibo users celebrated their newfound freedom to travel, with the hashtag “Where to travel abroad next year” garnering nearly 80 million views.

Before the pandemic, China was the world’s biggest market for overseas travel, having skyrocketed from 4.5 million travelers in 2000 to 150 million in 2018. The country is also the world’s biggest spender, accounting for $277 billion or more. 16% of the world total of $1.7 trillion. spending on international tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

China alone contributed 51% of travel and tourism GDP in the Asia-Pacific region in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. And Chinese travelers typically make up 30% of all arrivals in Thailand.

CNN’s Cheng Cheng, Pierre Meilhan, Kevin Liptak, Valentina Di Donato, Eric Cheung, Emi Jozuka, and CNN’s Beijing office contributed reporting.

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