By Joyce Zhou and Yew Lun Tian
HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) -Travellers streamed into China by air, land and sea on Sunday, many eager for long-awaited reunions, as Beijing opened borders that have been all but shut since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After three years, mainland China opened sea and land crossings with Hong Kong and ended a requirement for incoming travellers to quarantine, dismantling a final pillar of a zero-COVID policy that had shielded China's 1.4 billion people from the virus but also cut them off from the rest of the world.
China's easing over the past month of one of the world's tightest COVID regimes followed historic protests against a policy that included frequent testing, curbs on movement and mass lockdowns that heavily damaged the second-biggest economy.
Long queues formed at the Hong Kong international airport's check-in counters for flights to mainland cities including Beijing, Tianjin and Xiamen. Hong Kong media outlets estimated that thousands were crossing.
“I'm so happy, so happy, so excited. I haven't seen my parents for many years," said Hong Kong resident Teresa Chow as she and dozens of other travellers prepared to cross into mainland China from Hong Kong's Lok Ma Chau checkpoint.
"My parents are not in good health and I couldn't go back to see them even when they had colon cancer, so I'm really happy to go back and see them now," she said.
Investors hope the reopening will reinvigorate a $17-trillion economy suffering its slowest growth in nearly half a century. But the abrupt policy reversal has triggered a massive wave of infections that is overwhelming some hospitals and causing business disruptions.
The border opening follows Saturday's start of "chun yun", the 40-day period of Lunar New Year travel, which before the pandemic was the world's largest annual migration, as people returned to their hometowns or took holidays with family.
Some 2 billion trips are expected this season, nearly double last year's movement and recovering to 70% of 2019 levels, the government says.
Many Chinese are also expected to start travelling abroad, a long-awaited shift for tourist spots in countries such as Thailand and Indonesia. But several governments - worried about China's COVID spike - are imposing curbs on travellers from the country.
Travel will not quickly return to pre-pandemic levels due to such factors as a dearth of international flights, analysts say.
China on Sunday resumed issuing passports and travel visas for mainland residents, and ordinary visas and residence permits for foreigners. Beijing has quotas on the number of people who can travel between Hong Kong and China each day.
At the Beijing Capital International Airport, families and friends exchanged emotional hugs and greetings with passengers arriving from places such as Hong Kong, Warsaw and Frankfurt, meetings impossible just a day earlier.
“I've been looking forward to the reopening for a long time. Finally we are reconnected with the world. I'm thrilled, I can't believe it’s happening,” said a businesswoman surnamed Shen, 55, who flew in from Hong Kong.
Others waiting at the airport included a group of women with long-lens cameras hoping to catch glimpse of boy band Tempest, the first idol group from South Korea to enter China in three years.
“It’s so good to see them in person! They are much more handsome and taller than I expected,” said a 19-year-old who gave her name as Xiny, after chasing the seven-member group, who arrived in Beijing from Seoul.
CONCERNS OVER RURAL AREAS
China downgraded its COVID management to Category B from A, which had allowed local authorities to quarantine patients and their close contacts and lock down regions.
But concerns remain that the great migration of city workers to their hometowns and reopening of borders may cause a surge in infections in smaller towns and rural areas that are less-equipped with intensive-care beds and ventilators.
The World Health Organisation said on Wednesday that China's COVID data underrepresents the number of hospitalisations and deaths from the disease.
Chinese officials and state media defended the handling of the outbreak, playing down the severity of the surge and denouncing foreign travel requirements on Chinese residents.
Jiao Yahui, an official from the National Health Commission, said in an interview published by state broadcaster CCTV on Sunday that demand for emergency and critical care in China's large cities had likely peaked but was rising fast in small and midsize cities and rural areas due to the Lunar New Year travel.
Some 80% of ICU beds in China's top- and second-tier hospitals were in use, up from 54% on Dec. 25, she said, adding that the country's medical services to treat COVID were facing an "unprecedented challenge".
Health officials told a news conference they would not rule out the possibility of taking emergency COVID prevention measures such as suspending nonessential large-scale activities and business at large entertainment venues to deal with large outbreaks.
China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced two new daily COVID deaths on the mainland, compared with three a day earlier, bringing the official death toll to 5,269.
(Reporting by Joyce Zhou in Hong Kong, Yew Lun Tian and Josh Arslan in Beijing; Additional reporting by Tony Munroe in Hong Kong; Yingzhi Yang and Eve Wu in Beijing; Writing by Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Editing by William Mallard)