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Chinese travelers are ready to go overseas again. Some countries are hesitant

Hong Kong (CNN) — Covid outbreak surging in China. Countries imposing travel restrictions on Chinese travelers are wary of the virus being imported. Scientists warn against scare and xenophobia.

But this is not the beginning of 2020. A familiar scene is playing out now as China battles its biggest outbreak to date. China has abandoned its strict zero-Covid approach and partially reopened its borders three years after the pandemic.

The country announced this week that it would lift quarantine requirements for international arrivals and resume overseas travel for previously banned Chinese citizens. It has sparked a surge of enthusiastic travelers.

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

However, while countries such as the United States and Japan are making moves to impose restrictions, countries such as France and the United Kingdom have made it clear that they are ready to welcome Chinese tourists.

Which countries impose 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 from Friday, and the government will limit the number of flights to and from China. .

Chinese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pointed out the lack of official data from the Chinese government. “There is information that the infection is spreading rapidly in mainland China, but it is difficult to grasp the details of the situation in Japan, and there is growing concern,” he said.

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

Taiwan also announced mandatory inspections upon arrival for travelers coming from mainland China on Wednesday. The self-governed island has banned mainland Chinese tourists since the pandemic, allowing Chinese nationals to visit only for business or family reasons.

At all three locations, anyone who tests positive upon arrival must quarantine for several days.

Meanwhile, the United States announced it would require travelers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, and from popular third-country gateways such as Seoul, Toronto and Vancouver, to have negative test results before departure. Did.

People carry suitcases through the departure lobby of Beijing Airport on December 27.

KYDPL Joint/AP

The move is particularly impressive given that most of these places, especially in the West, have long reopened borders and abandoned testing requirements as part of the transition to life with Covid. On Wednesday, he claimed the Covid situation was “under control” and accused the Western media of “distorting” recent policy changes.

In Europe, Italy, the first country on the continent to be hit by an outbreak in 2020, has announced it will require Covid testing for all travelers coming from China, while the health minister said that “every subspecies could be identified. essential . . . to protect the Italian population.”

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

Are variants a risk?

Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledged the risk of new variants emerging in “unvaccinated populations.”

“[In China]90% of the population is officially vaccinated with two doses of the inactivated vaccine, but there is still a significant proportion of the elderly who have not been vaccinated, and those who have been vaccinated Many of them have been vaccinated, it’s been over half a year so antibody levels are already very low,” he said. “Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that a new variant could actually emerge in China and then spread to other parts of the world.”

A federal health official in the United States noted the speed of the outbreak in China, saying, “With so many people infected in China in a short period of time, it is possible and likely that new variants will emerge. ‘ said.

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

However, GISEAD, a global virus database, said Chinese officials have submitted more genomic information from recent samples, which appear to match the already globalized variants. rice field.

Karen Grepin, associate professor of public health at the University of Hong Kong, said a country’s best defense against potential subspecies lies in domestic policies to protect its own population, such as increased vaccination and social distancing. said to focus. Basic public health measures.

“In many parts of the world, the pandemic feels like it’s over … but at the end of the day,[these measures]are what ultimately stop the virus from spreading,” she said.

“If countries think those things no longer matter, like, they’ve developed so much herd immunity, why bother with some new cases coming in from China? do you?”

Are the measures effective?

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

“We see no compelling reason to justify the move,” said Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations. There is no proof.”

“The lack of transparency, the lack of sharing of genome sequences is an understandable concern,” he added. “However, a ban would not prevent the virus from spreading. Assuming that a new variant did indeed emerge in mainland China, it would only slow the spread and prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of China.” It cannot be the world.”

Grepin agrees, saying, “In practice, there is no scientific evidence to support that these measures are actually effective.”

If an infectious variant emerges, it will likely enter the United States from other countries anyway, she said, adding that when Omicron emerged last fall, restrictions “had little effect.” pointed out.

Pre-departure testing required by the US is also only partially effective due to the short incubation period of many new strains.

Political pressure and xenophobia

Grepin said there are several reasons countries may be imposing these restrictions despite questionable usage.

However, she added, this is highly unlikely.The number of travelers from China is still very low, partly due to the limited number of flights. And at the speed of Covid’s spread, it will be a logistical challenge for infected patients to quickly obtain visas and book flights abroad.

Instead, the latest set of restrictions likely reflects “political pressure[on authorities]to make it look like they are doing something”. We see the country follow suit.”

Medical staff treat a patient at a hospital in China's Jiangsu province on Dec. 28.

Medical staff treat a patient at a hospital in China’s Jiangsu province on Dec. 28.

CFOTO/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Experts also say that naming China could increase the risk of anti-Chinese racism, as seen early in the pandemic when Asians around the world faced discrimination and violent hate crimes. warns.

Huang said China is not the only country where the number of cases is rising. “I don’t understand why China should be treated differently than other countries like Australia. Australia is swimming in Covid,” he added.

Grepin added that the United States is still likely importing tens of thousands of cases from around the world, with between 1% and 3% of international travelers infected with COVID-19.

“We’ve seen this throughout the pandemic, where stereotypes and beliefs that the virus comes from certain parts of the world are reinforced when certain measures target people from certain places. It’s not true,” she said.

Which countries are welcoming Chinese travelers back?

In contrast, many countries have opened their doors to welcome.

Tourism bureaus and embassies in France, Thailand, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Switzerland all posted messages on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, inviting Chinese tourists. did.

“Friends of China, France welcomes you with open arms!” the French embassy wrote on Weibo. The National Tourism Authority of Thailand writes, “Thailand has been waiting for you for three years!”

Many Weibo users celebrated their newfound travel freedom, with the hashtag ‘next year’s travel destinations abroad’ garnering nearly 80 million views.

Pre-pandemic, China was the world’s largest outbound travel market, surging from 4.5 million travelers in 2000 to 150 million in 2018. The country is also the world’s largest consumer, accounting for $277 billion, or 16% of her global total of $1.7 trillion. International tourism spending, according to the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, China alone accounted for 51% of Asia Pacific’s travel and tourism GDP in 2018. Chinese travelers also typically make up 30% of all travelers arriving in Thailand.

CNN’s Cheng Cheng, Pierre Meilhan, Kevin Liptak, Valentina Di Donato, Eric Cheung, Emi Jozuka, and CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to the report.