Will Australia see an influx of Chinese tourists as China relaxes strict COVID-19 border rules?

After almost three years of closed borders, Chinese people are able to travel freely again

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.

An Asian women
Sandy Shen says it’s hard to secure a seat on a flight from China to Australia.(Supplied)

“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’

An Asian scholar holding a book
Professor Sam Huang says the process to get a COVID-19 test in China may not be so simple.(ABC News: Jon Kerr)

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.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
‘We value transparency’: Health Minister Mark Butler on mandatory testing for Chinese travellers.

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.

A hand with IV lines
Vincent Yan has had to delay plans for a trip to Australia because of illness from COVID.(Supplied)

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.

A medical worker in a protective suit collects a swab sample from a man in China.
Travellers coming to Australia from China are required to test for COVID-19 before flying.(Reuters: Aly Song)

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.