Hong Kong (CNN) — Thousands of travelers crossed mainland China's borders on Sunday for joyful reunions and long-awaited journeys as authorities relaxed restrictions that had both separated families and isolated the world's most populous country for nearly three years.
At international airports in China's major cities, families awaited returnees at the exit gates for the first time since the early days of the pandemic -- a sharp change from the longstanding Covid protocols that saw all arrivals processed by hazmat-clad workers and taken to mandatory hotel quarantine for days or weeks.
One Beijing resident surnamed Yu brought her young son to Beijing's Capital International Airport to await the arrival of her husband returning home from his job in Spain for the first time in nearly a year.
"(Previously) we wouldn't have been able to pick him up here today, because he would have had to be quarantined before returning home. We are excited that we can see him today," said Yu, moments before her husband walked out of the arrivals to scoop up their son into his arms.
In Hong Kong, where most border checkpoints with mainland China had been shuttered since the pandemic's early days, residents waited to welcome their loved ones at the previously shuttered Lok Ma Chau station, as the mainland also eased its boundary controls with the city.
"I've waited for this so long," said newlywed Felicia Feng in Hong Kong, who hadn't seen her husband since they were married in the mainland a few months earlier.
"This is his first time to Hong Kong ... I have a full list of food and the places that we want to go," she said, adding that even though her hometown in mainland China is not far from Hong Kong, she had also been limited in how often she could go back to see her family during the pandemic.
"This creates a lot of difficulties for my life, but now it seems that everything starts to become better," she said.
The Hong Kong government said up to 60,000 people a day would be allowed to cross the border between the city and mainland China in both directions, and on Sunday tens of thousands of people did just that, it added.
Passengers are seen in the arrivals area for international flights at the Capital International Airport in Beijing on January 8, 2023.
Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images
Three years of restrictions ease
The relaxing of China's tight border controls, both with Hong Kong and internationally, marks a sweeping step for the country as it rapidly unravels years of draconian Covid-19 curbs.
For nearly three years, stringent border controls had ring-fenced China from the rest of the world and placed a heavy burden on families and businesses with ties in the mainland, Hong Kong, Macao and abroad.
As other countries lifted Covid travel restrictions over the past year, entering China remained a rigorous and expensive ordeal for overseas Chinese citizens hoping to return home and other travelers eligible to enter the country, requiring quarantine, multiple Covid tests and a scramble for seats on limited flights.
Beijing late last month announced it would drop a quarantine requirement for overseas arrivals and relax restrictions that limited the capacity of international flights from January 8, while authorities confirmed Thursday plans to reopen the border with Hong Kong on the same day. For international travel into China, Beijing has yet to green-light foreign tourists, and inbound travelers will be required to show a negative Covid test result obtained within 48 hours of departure.
But the policy shift both streamlines the entry process for eligible travelers, and it will also see authorities begin to process Chinese citizens' passport applications for tourism outside China, which had been limited to discourage leisure travel.
The rule change, announced late last month, was met with an outpouring of interest in China, with bookings for overseas travel during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, which begins January 21 this year, soaring by 540% from a year ago, according to data from Chinese travel platform Trip.com Group.
"Lots of people are very interested in taking their family for a nice vacation after three years of lockdown," Jane Sun, CEO of Trip.com Group, told CNN on Monday, pointing to the upcoming week-long holiday as another driver.
Meanwhile, China's travel industry was preparing for the expected travel rebound, Sun said.
"We expect for the first one or two quarters (of 2023), it will take airlines and hotels some time to rehire back their staff and build up the infrastructure. During the second half of this year, hopefully the infrastructure will be back to normal," she said.
Travelers wait for their luggage at the baggage claim area at Shanghai Pudong International Airport as China lifts quarantine requirements for international arrivals on January 8, 2023 in Shanghai, China.
VCG/Visual China Group/VCG/Getty Images
Restrictions imposed by other countries
However, some travelers will need to take a Covid test before leaving China to comply with rules set by other countries. A number of countries have implemented Covid testing requirements for travelers from China, citing a dearth of data on strains circulating amid the country's ongoing, rampant outbreak of Covid-19.
Another Beijing resident surnamed He on Sunday expressed relief at the ease of travel as he prepared to take his family to Macao for a holiday ahead of the Lunar New Year.
Compared to the past summer, when he also left China, finding tickets and preparing travels documents was much more straightforward, He said.
"Now it is faster. You can just buy a ticket, renew (your travel permit) and go ... and then you can start your own life on the same day you land," he said.
But others, like Hong Kong resident Anthony Chan traveling to the mainland to attend a cousin's wedding, lamented the time lost when it came to seeing loved ones and being able to live life as usual.
The 18-year-old said he hadn't been able to see his extended family on the other side of the border for around three years amid other restrictions on daily life due to the pandemic controls.
"The policy (kept) harming our life for the past few years ... it's not (that) we are scared of this Covid. It's that we are scared of this policy," he said.