Written by Monika Kiss.
After a series of relaxations of China’s zero-tolerance COVID measures at the end of 2022 (the country was practically closed for inbound travellers with most types of visas for almost three years), the Chinese government announced on 26 December 2022 that it would reopen its border to international travellers from 8 January 2023. This reopening means that China has dropped the requirements for five days quarantine in a hotel and three additional days of self-isolation at home that applied to international arrivals. However, travellers must still present a negative COVID‑19 test result obtained within 48 hours before departure. This measure applies to inbound travellers coming for business, employment, study and family visits. At the same time, the government declared its intention to increase international flights and to bring the schedule back to pre-coronavirus levels.
Following these announcements, bookings for international tickets for a date after 8 January 2023 increased by more than 85 % for both outbound and inbound travellers, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA) data.
As early as mid-December 2022, just one week after the first mitigating measures, China has seen a significant outbreak of COVID‑19. The Chinese government has been criticised, among others, by the World Health Organization (WHO), for under-representing the real number of COVID‑19 cases and deaths. The Chinese National Health Commission takes a ‘narrow’ definition of COVID‑19 death, taking only deaths caused by pneumonia and respiratory failure after contracting the virus into account. The WHO intends to continue monitoring the situation and urged all countries to maintain vigilance.
In this context, some countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, India and Malaysia, have introduced measures for travellers arriving from China. Some EU Member States also started applying measures as well from the end of December 2022. Italy imposed mandatory tests for passengers from China upon arrival, after 97 positive results were registered from a sample of 212, and has called on the EU to follow suit. Spain decided to test, to carry out temperature checks, and to impose COVID certificates. France has required pre-travel negative tests from passengers from China, masks on planes and PCR tests on arrival for all passengers. Belgium has announced it will not require test results from travellers, but is testing the wastewater from planes and scanning the samples for new variants. Differing reasons were advanced for these diverging and uncoordinated responses: past experiences of COVID‑19, fear of new variants, concerns about the reliability of Chinese data, or economic reasons (for instance, Austria decided not to ask for tests, as China is the most important Asian source market for the coming tourism season). Following the European Union’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) meeting on 4 January 2022, called by the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, EU countries agreed on a coordinated precautionary approach, including the following elements for Member States:
- recommendation to wear a mask or FFP2/N95/KN95 respirators on all passengers on flights to and from China,
- advice to incoming and outgoing international travellers, as well as to aircraft and airport personnel, regarding personal hygiene and health measures,
- recommended introduction for all passengers departing from China to Member States, of the requirement for a negative COVID‑19 test taken not more than 48 hours prior to departure from China,
- recommendation to complement these measures with:
- random testing of passengers arriving from China on arrival in the Member States, as appropriate, and the sequencing of all positive results to strengthen surveillance of the epidemiological situation,
- testing and sequencing of wastewater from airports with international flights and aircraft arriving from China,
- continuing to promote vaccine sharing and the uptake of vaccines, including booster doses, particularly among vulnerable groups.
The EU Member States agreed to assess the situation and review the introduced measures by mid-January 2023.
This coordinated approach led to reinforced measures in several EU countries, Belgium, for instance requires a negative PCR test, valid for 48 hours, before boarding the plane as of 8 January 2023, as does Austria from 7 January 2023. Besides the Member States already mentioned, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden have so far stepped up rules on travellers from China in response to the rising cases.
Some stakeholders in the transport sector have been critical of the EU approach. In a joint statement, Airlines for Europe (A4E), International Air Transport Association (IATA) and ACI (Airports Council International) stated that the EU recommendation was not in line with the assessment published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on 3 January 2023. The ECDC has declared that the current surge of COVID‑19 cases in China is not expected to affect the epidemiological situation in the EU/European Economic Area (EEA), because the COVID‑19 variants circulating in China are already present in the EU/EEA, and the population has already acquired higher immunity. Systematic testing of travellers from China is not therefore considered a scientifically driven and risk-based measure.
The measures taken by EU Member States were also subject to criticism in China, stating that these are ‘attempts to manipulate the COVID measures for political purposes’. China also threatened to ‘take countermeasures based on the principle of reciprocity’.
China also declined an EU offer of help through vaccine donations, with the Chinese government insisting that the situation is under control and that the country has an adequate quantity of medical supplies.
On 10 January 2023, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the ECDC published a joint statement as an addendum to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol. This document reiterates the recommendations of the Swedish Presidency, recommending airports and operators ensure:
- the use of masks or respirators for passengers and crew on flights,
- enhanced personal hygiene and health measures for both travellers and aircraft and airport personnel,
- the requirement for a negative COVID-19 test taken not more than 48 hours (RADTs) or 72 hours (NAATs) prior to departure,
- facilitated random testing of passengers upon arrival, and support for local health authorities in sampling wastewater from airports and aircraft.
Impact on the tourism sector
Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists represented an important share of the EU’s tourism sector. Statistics show the number of outbound journeys of Chinese tourists has grown steadily during the last decade. Of the nearly 170 million outbound trips from China in 2019, nearly all were for private purposes, rather than business trips. Chinese tourist spending on international tourism has also increased strongly over the last ten years, reaching a peak of over US$277 billion in 2018.
Some 28 % of trips made by Chinese tourists were to the EU, with a preference for larger cities. France was the EU country most visited by Chinese tourists in 2019, with more than 2.4 million Chinese visitors, who spent around €4 billion. Other popular EU destinations included Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Greece and Austria. In 2021, arrivals from China in the European country totalled roughly 55 000, dropping from around 158 000 in 2020 and over 1.55 million in 2019. In 2020, due to the pandemic and the severe COVID‑19 measures in China, the number of outbound tourists fell to around 20.3 million
Travel figures are more moderate in the other direction. Before the pandemic, China was the 11th most popular destination outside the EU for EU citizens. In 2018, EU residents made 1.75 million trips to China. Trips to China represented close to 2 % of the total number of trips made outside the EU in 2018, 48 % of which were for professional purposes. The number of trips to China declined considerably because of the pandemic and the related measures, to 125 000 trips in 2020 and 26 000 in 2021, mostly for professional purposes.
Although China’s lifting of COVID‑19 measures does not signal a green light for international leisure tourists willing to visit China, the Chinese government plans to ease restrictions for tourists and to issue tourist visas, without indicating a timeline. This development could boost both aviation and tourism, presuming that China intends to ease travel restrictions gradually. It remains to be seen if the measures taken by the EU will impact this trend.