China to resume issuing passports, visas as virus curbs ease

BEIJING (AP) — China says it will resume issuing ordinary visas and passports, another big step out of anti-virus controls that have quarantined the country for nearly three years Going abroad during Chinese New Year. annual holidays.

Tuesday’s announcement adds to abrupt changes that are rolling back some of the world’s strictest anti-virus controls as the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping tries to reverse the recession. Rules confining millions of people to their homes have kept China’s infection rate low but fueled public frustration and dampened economic growth.

The latest decision could see a flood of high-spending Chinese tourists flock to income-starved destinations in Asia and Europe during the Lunar New Year, which begins on Jan. 22. But it also brings with it the danger that they could spread COVID-19 as infections surge in China.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, China stopped issuing visas to foreigners and stopped issuing passports to its own people.

China’s National Immigration Administration said it will start accepting passport applications for tourists going abroad on January 8. It said it would resume approving tourists and businessmen to visit Hong Kong, a Chinese territory with its own border controls.

The agency said it would accept applications for ordinary visas and residence permits. It said the government would “gradually resume” allowing foreign tourists to enter, but did not say when full tourism from abroad would be allowed.

Health experts and economists expect the ruling Communist Party to continue restricting travel into China until at least mid-2023, while launching a campaign to vaccinate millions of elderly people. Experts say this is necessary to prevent a public health crisis.

Chinese nationals with family emergencies or travel deemed essential for work have been able to obtain passports during the pandemic, but some students and businessmen traveling abroad on visas have been prevented from leaving by border guards. The few foreign businessmen and others who were allowed into China were quarantined for up to a week.

Before the pandemic, China was the largest source of foreign tourists for most of its Asian neighbors and an important market for Europe and the United States.

The Chinese government has lifted or eased most quarantine, testing and other restrictions inside the country, joining the United States, Japan and other governments in trying to live with the virus rather than prevent its spread.

Japan and India responded to a surge in infections in China by requiring virus testing for travelers from China. Washington is considering similar measures, the U.S. official said on condition of anonymity regarding internal discussions.

On Monday, the government said it would lift the quarantine requirement for travelers arriving from abroad, which will also take effect on Jan. 8. Foreign companies welcomed the change, seeing it as an important step to revive sluggish business activity.

Business groups have warned that global companies are shifting investment away from China as foreign executives are blocked from visiting.

More than 70% of companies surveyed this month expect the impact of the latest wave of the epidemic to last no more than three months and end in early 2023, the AmCham China said.

The government has stopped reporting national case numbers, but announcements from some cities suggest at least tens of millions and possibly hundreds of millions of people have been infected since the surge in early October.

The outbreak has sparked complaints that Beijing has loosened controls too abruptly. Officials say the wave started before the change.

China counts only deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll, a health official said last week. This does not include the many deaths attributed to COVID-19 in other countries.

Experts predict that between 1 and 2 million people will die in China by the end of 2023.

Also on Monday, the government downgraded COVID-19 from a Class A infectious disease to a Class B disease and removed it from the list of diseases requiring isolation. It said authorities would stop contact tracing and designate areas as high or low risk of infection.

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Associated Press Writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed.

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