China and Hong Kong to reopen border as Beijing drops zero-Covid curbs

China and Hong Kong have confirmed plans to reopen their shared border on Sunday after nearly three years of coronavirus restrictions that have stifled cross-border tourism and business activity.

But crossings to and from mainland China will be limited to an estimated 60,000 a day each way, Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee said on Thursday. The visits will be the first to be exempt from quarantine on arrival since early 2020, but amount to a fraction of pre-pandemic figures.

The easing of cross-border restrictions was timed to coincide with Beijing dropping entry restrictions for overseas travellers, including scrapping PCR tests on arrival, which Chinese authorities announced late last month in an abrupt exit from the country’s zero-Covid containment policy.

“With the approval of the central government, [Hong Kong’s] path returning to normalcy is now nearly 100 per cent complete,” Lee told a press conference.

Hong Kong’s economic pillars, from the retail sector to the property market, have been battered by the pandemic. The financial hub’s gross domestic product is expected to contract 3.2 per cent in 2022.

The pandemic took a heavy toll on tourism, which contributed roughly 4.5 per cent to Hong Kong’s economy in 2018, with a majority of 65mn coming from mainland China. Mainland visitors dropped to about 249,000 in the first 10 months of last year.

The territory only waived quarantine requirements for overseas visitors, which at one point stretched for as long as three weeks, in September. Arrival testing requirements and other social restrictions were dropped last week.

Retail sales in Hong Kong also fell nearly 20 per cent between January and November last year compared with the same period in 2019.

The sector is not anticipating an immediate sales surge during the lunar new year this month, normally a peak season, as China’s vast Covid-19 outbreak damps travel sentiment.

“We are not expecting many mainland tourists to be on a spending spree during trips to Hong Kong right after the borders reopen,” said Hong Kong Retail Management Association chair Annie Yau, citing continued weak domestic retail demand on the mainland.

Beijing on Thursday announced that Hong Kong residents would no longer need to perform a Covid test on arrival from Sunday, but would need a negative PCR test result within 48 hours of departure. The same requirement applies to overseas visitors.

Those travelling to Hong Kong from mainland China will also need a negative pre-departure PCR test, though arrivals from overseas only need to perform a rapid antigen test.

The Hong Kong government later released details including a daily cap of 50,000 each way for land border crossings with Shenzhen due to capacity constraints. The remaining 10,000 daily visitors are expected to travel via flight and ferry. A high-speed rail line connection with mainland China will resume service no later than January 15, government officials said.

The latest arrangements came as Beijing objected this week to a growing list of countries imposing testing requirements on arrivals from China in hopes of preventing a surge in infections from spreading.

“Covid response measures . . . should not be used for political manipulation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a press conference on Wednesday. “There should not be discriminatory measures against certain countries.”

The EU on Wednesday recommended member states require pre-departure Covid tests for travellers from China, following countries including the US, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea, which have introduced controls including compulsory testing and proof of vaccination.

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