After almost three years of closed borders, Chinese people are able to travel freely again from today.
Data shows that online searches for visa applications and flight bookings have increased dramatically since authorities announced two weeks ago that travel restrictions would be lifted on January 8.
However, despite Australia’s usual popularity as a tourist destination for travellers from China, it seems other places have become more enticing for those eager to take their first trips abroad in years.
Sandy Shen — a Sydneysider who migrated from China — said her cousin and his partner were preparing to come to Australia from Shanghai next week.
However, they have been panicking about Australia’s requirement for a negative COVID-19 test, which they would have to do at a hospital.
“Hospitals are teetering at the edge of collapse, are overcrowded with desperate, infected people and are staffed by COVID-positive doctors and nurses,” Ms Shen told the ABC.
“[My cousin’s partner] is pregnant. They might get infected there. It is very dangerous for them.”
From last Thursday, all travellers from China — including Australian citizens — have to take a pre-departure COVID-19 test and provide a negative result before heading to Australia.
The new testing regime follows measures imposed by several other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and India.
Ms Shen criticised the response as a “knee-jerk, voter-pleasing policy decision, lacking scientific justification”, given Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly advised the government not to introduce it, saying there was not “sufficient public health rationale”.
The Australian government has argued the decision was taken out of an “abundance of caution” and was a temporary measure.
‘A big barrier for people to travel’
Sam Huang — an international tourism professor at Edith Cowan University — said it was an understandable move, but needed more consideration.
“China is getting so many infections every day. For international travellers’ safety, this is very understandable,” Professor Huang said.
“[But] we need to see how difficult it is for people to get a test in China. If people cannot easily get a test, that may be really a big barrier for people to travel.”
The Australian government said it would also accept RAT results, but they have to be administered or supervised by a medical practitioner.
That is difficult to do under China’s medical system, meaning people generally need to do a PCR test.
Most of China’s PCR testing facilities have been removed since the COVID-zero policy was ditched, so travellers have to go to a hospital, making the process more difficult and putting them at risk of infection.
Skyrocketing case numbers
Apart from the complicated COVID -19 checks and the high price of plane tickets, China’s skyrocketing case numbers have also presented a significant obstacle for tourists wanting to travel.
Vincent Yan has dropped his plans to visit Australia because he’s stuck in hospital with pneumonia caused by COVID-19.
“I planned to visit my friends in Australia this year, but now I cannot do anything,” he said.
Mr Yan and his family live in Jiangsu province in eastern China.
Both his daughter and wife had recovered from COVID-19, but he developed pneumonia with severe symptoms such as chest tightness, fatigue and diarrhoea.
“When China eased the restrictions, I thought we could travel overseas soon,” he said.
“Changes always go beyond plans.”
For Mr Yan, Australia is still on his travel list once he has recovered.
His daughter remains excited about the trip.
“She wants to see those unique animals in Australia,” the 42-year-old said.
Chinese tourists favour near neighbours
Although China’s COVID-19 cases are soaring, the public can hardly hold back its excitement for international travel.
From today, people can freely travel out of China without needing a special reason, and there is no more quarantine mandates for returning travellers.
Trip.com Group — a major international travel service provider — has measured the online search volume for visa applications and outbound flight bookings.
It found searches for visa applications had jumped by 300 per cent.
Meanwhile, outbound flight bookings from mainland China increased by more than 250 per cent within a day of the Chinese government announcing the scrapping of overseas travel restrictions in December.
Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand make up the top five most-popular destinations, while Australia ranks ninth.
Local tourism operators are worried that Chinese tourists — Australia’s largest inbound tourist group — will not bounce back to pre-pandemic levels until 2025 or 2026.
James Shen, the owner of Odyssey Travel in Melbourne, said he believed Chinese tourists were considering more cost-effective destinations.
“After these years of restrictions, people don’t have much money now,” he said.
“It is unlikely they will choose long-distance travel [like Australia].”
Professor Huang said it was common for Chinese tourists to favour visiting neighbouring countries.
“If you perceive a high risk when you travel internationally, especially when China is experiencing an outburst of pandemic cases, they need to consider the risk,” he said.
‘Not easy’ to rebuild the industry
Another challenge facing Australia as it tries to lure back Chinese tourists has been finding workers for the tourism sector.
“During the pandemic, we lost plenty of Chinese-speaking staff,” Mr Shen said.
“They switched to other jobs.”
Professor Huang said rebuilding the capacity to accommodate a significant number of tourists from China would take some time.
“You need time to build a new industry with new people coming into the industry working as tour guides,” he said.
“That’s not easy.”