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Photos: Loved ones reunite in China, Hong Kong as borders reopen after 3 years

Travelers crossed a Hong Kong immigration checkpoint as mainland China reopened its borders on Jan. 8. Hong Kong resident Teresa Chow expressed her excitement. (Video: Reuters)
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Beijing began a gradual reopening of its land and sea borders with Hong Kong on Sunday for the first time in almost three years, as part of its move to roll back onerous pandemic restrictions that largely prevented travel into China from overseas and the city.

Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Chris Tang Ping-keung, said Sunday morning that 7,000 people had left for the mainland, with more expected to do so throughout the day, the South China Morning Post reported.

It is the latest move by Beijing to roll back the “zero covid” approach it has championed since the start of the pandemic but which has come with a heavy human and economic cost. The ending of many restrictions has caused infections to spike in the mainland, fueling global concerns about China’s reopening.

In addition to reopening its land and sea crossings with Hong Kong, Beijing eliminated its requirement for travelers to quarantine upon arrival in mainland China. Travelers seeking to enter Hong Kong from the mainland will still need to produce a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of arrival.

The change is significant, given that travelers seeking to enter the mainland previously had to shoulder the cost of days-long stays in quarantine hotels — and accept the risk that, if they tested positive for the coronavirus while there, they could be taken to a government facility until they recovered.

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Photos taken at airports and train stations that connect Hong Kong with the mainland on Sunday showed emotional travelers headed to reunite with family and friends.

This weekend also marked the start of the Lunar New Year period in China, when millions of people typically travel from the cities where they live and work to their hometowns to celebrate with family.

While Sunday marked a major step toward normalizing travel to mainland China, Hong Kong authorities said the reopening would be gradual at first — particularly amid concerns in Hong Kong about an influx of travelers from the mainland, where coronavirus infections are believed to have surged, even as official data shows them to be relatively low.

In addition to the requirement for negative PCR tests for travelers from the mainland, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said Thursday there would be a daily cap of 60,000 on the number of people allowed to cross the border each way.

In Hong Kong, some residents have expressed concern that inbound travelers seeking access to medicines that are in short supply on the mainland could create shortages and strain the city’s health-care system.

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Aboard subway trains heading toward Lok Ma Chau, a land crossing between Hong Kong and the mainland, photos showed staff members holding signs reminding travelers of their obligation to produce a recent negative PCR test.

Hong Kong scrapped many of its covid rules in December. Though it kept in place a requirement for inbound travelers to produce a negative coronavirus test upon arrival, it said overseas travelers could submit either a PCR test or the more easily obtainable antigen test, while it said travelers from the mainland still had to submit a PCR test.

Authorities in Beijing have vigorously criticized countries that have recently implemented similar requirements for Chinese travelers, calling them politically motivated.

Airports in China were also filled Sunday with people reuniting with loved ones from overseas, as the lifting of restrictions meant some travelers from outside China could enter the mainland without quarantining for the first time since 2020 — though the volume of flights remained significantly below pre-pandemic levels. The mainland remains shut to foreign tourists.

Photos from the international arrival hall at Beijing Capital International Airport showed romantic partners, families, and parents and children embracing.

Theodora Yu and Kelsey Ables contributed to this report.