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COVID-19 Restrictions on Chinese Citizens Could Impact Business Travel

Annie Erling Gofus - Jan 12 2023
Published in: Mobility
China warns of unspecified countermeasures at nations that placed COVID-19 restrictions on its travelers for “political goals.”a

On 3 January, China strongly denounced what it deemed as unjust and politically charged travel restrictions on its nationals, threatening countermeasures in retaliation. This heightened rhetoric comes shortly before the scheduled reopening of China’s borders.

In order to cross borders, some countries, including the United States, now require travelers from China to show a negative test result. Taiwan has also stated that it will quarantine any individuals with positive results upon entry. As China dismantles its stringent zero-COVID plan after nearly three years, stricter measures have been put in place. China's zero-tolerance policy toward COVID-19 made entering the nation enormously difficult, as all arrivals had to go through a rigorous process of quarantining in either hotels or camps.

Some countries are worried about the sudden increase of COVID-19 cases in China, any variants that may arise from its current outbreak, and Beijing's alleged refusal to provide other nations with accurate information regarding coronavirus data.

On 4 January, the European Union “strongly encouraged” its 27 member countries to ensure that all travelers boarding flights from China have a negative COVID-19 test result prior to departure. Countries in the European Union “are strongly encouraged to introduce, for all passengers departing from China to member states, the requirement for a negative Covid-19 test taken not more than 48 hours prior to departure from China,” the advice said.

In a unified effort, the bloc proposed a series of recommendations after France, Italy, Spain, and Britain all implemented testing requirements for overseas visitors from China. Individually, the nations of the European Union are permitted to formulate their own regulations.  

In late December, the Lombardy region of Italy, which includes Milan, began to mandate that travelers arriving from China must be screened. This policy was soon extended throughout all of Italy.

Out of the 120 passengers who boarded a 26 December flight from Wenzhou, China, to Italy, more than half tested positive for COVID-19 on PCR tests upon arrival. On a 29 December flight from Tianjin, China, an incredible 46% of the passengers tested positive for COVID-19, with 26 out of 56 individuals yielding positive results.

In defense of the tests, French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne took a stand. As of 4 January, all individuals boarding a flight to France from China must present results of a negative virus test taken within the previous two days and may be randomly tested upon arrival.

China Speaks Out Against Travel Restriction

In response, Chinese authorities have asserted that the recently imposed restrictions are politically motivated.

“Some countries have no scientific basis for restricting entries from China, and some excessive practices are even more unacceptable,” said Mao Ning, a foreign ministry spokeswoman.

“We firmly oppose the practice of manipulating Covid prevention and control measures to achieve political goals, and will take corresponding measures in accordance with the principle of reciprocity according to different situations,” Mao said.

China has recently issued a warning, urging nations to use "science-based and proportionate" measures when creating travel protocols. This call for action from China could be seen as an escalation.

For the past three years, China has strictly enforced COVID-19 testing and quarantine regulations on foreign travelers entering its borders to help keep contagious diseases from being imported into the country. This is part of a long list of protective measures put in place by authorities.

Despite what many health experts have noted, travel restrictions wouldn’t be able to impede the development of new variants. Numerous studies have revealed that the Omicron variant’s spread was largely unaffected by prior travel restrictions.

The Chinese government has recently been forced to abandon its zero-COVID strategy due to a sudden surge of cases. In December, the government eliminated its expansive testing regulations that required regular screening and replaced them with a looser policy of lockdowns and quarantine only for those who tested positive. Consequently, contacts no longer have to be quarantined as well.

Questions are being raised about the lack of transparency in China's reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths, as it has ceased to provide daily updates. Many scientists now fear the real numbers could be far higher than what is reported. Health professionals have expressed their concern that the sheer amount of cases potentially might cause the virus to evolve into more hazardous forms.

Will the Restrictions Against China Affect Business Travel?

After a prolonged absence, international travel to China will soon resume with the loosening of quarantine regulations on 8 January. Incoming flights are anticipated to be much less restricted than earlier in 2020 when COVID-19 first surfaced in this country.

Beijing is hoping for a swift return to pre-pandemic life after the three years of zero-COVID regulations that have impeded travel and spending, ultimately leading to economic growth significantly beneath government targets. 

The Chinese government has recently resumed processing passport applications for its citizens wishing to travel outside the country. Before the pandemic, several countries heavily relied on Chinese tourists as a major source of income. Now, they are trying to find a balance between allowing an influx of Chinese tourism for economic gain and safeguarding public health from potential outbreaks in China.

Before the recent restrictions on Chinese travelers, Beijing's move to ease up its zero-COVID policy was regarded as a breakthrough that removed the last obstacle standing in the way of international business travelers’ long-awaited return. This full recovery is now at risk of being stifled.

The recent shift in China's zero-COVID regulations brought about a glimmer of hope for the corporate travel sector, as businesses look toward bringing China back into the fold to revive their industry. Regrettably, the stringent testing requirements that countries are now mandating will severely reduce much-needed confidence in global travel and be a major deterrent for travelers, according to industry professionals. 

Industry professionals contend that the growing restrictions being placed on Chinese travelers represent a discouraging regression.

“We are once again plunging back into a patchwork of unjustified and uncoordinated travel restrictions, which have no basis in scientific fact,” said Olivier Jankovec, director general of Airports Council International Europe, in a recent interview with Skift. 

The introduction of testing for passengers arriving from China has the potential to negatively affect the travel industry. The anticipated surge of business trips in January has now come to a halt, resulting in an immense setback for both travelers and corporations.

Willie Walsh, the International Air Transport Association's director general, criticized the sudden cascade of restrictions as a rash reaction. “We have the tools to manage Covid-19 without resorting to ineffective measures that cut off international connectivity, damage economies and destroy jobs,” Walsh said recently.

These decisions directly contradict the extensive knowledge and data acquired over the past three years. There is now consensus between the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) as well as the World Health Organisation (WHO) that current international travel restrictions are failing to contain COVID-19, along with its various concerning variants.