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China Has Reopened, but Visitors Have Been Slow to Return

High fares and infrequent flights are just a couple of reasons tourists haven't yet returned in droves.

People board a plane in China. CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

China recently ended its “zero Covid” policy and reopened to international travel, but that doesn’t mean the country is now teeming with visitors.

While many people would love to visit—whether for business or pleasure—the process of actually getting there has been a struggle, The New York Times reported on Monday. Flights are expensive and travel to the country infrequently; visas can take a while to procure; and China is still requiring some Covid precautions.

“I miss the choice and the freedom to go back and forth,” Liu Wei told the Times. The San Diego, California, resident used to visit China every summer. “It’s been such a tragedy for us to not be able to go back to our own country.”

The demand to visit China is certainly there: After the Chinese government announced that it was loosening its restrictions on international travel, Expedia searches for travel from the U.S. to China increased about 40 percent from the month prior, according to data that the company gave to The New York Times. But that demand isn’t being met by supply, at least in terms of flights.

Those seeking to fly to China have been faced with fares running into the high thousands of dollars, a result of airlines running fewer flights to the country. According to the aviation data provider Cirium, flights to China in March 2023 were only about a quarter of what they were in March 2019. Direct flights, at least between the United States and China, can be even harder to find.

Beyond the plane problems, all international travelers to and from China need to have a visa, but the rapidity with which China changed its travel policies has made acquiring one a struggle. Liu, for example, spent hours at a travel agency filling out the paperwork for a long-term visa, and consulates are dealing with a sudden glut of paperwork. On top of that, once a visa has been acquired, a negative PCR test is still needed before entering China.

Yet the hurdles aren’t deterring all of those longing to return to China or visit for the first time. Business travelers, in particular, have the means to afford the high fares, and they’ve been flying to China in large numbers. Leisure travelers, too, are finding ways to get to the country: Despite the bureaucratic process and the expensive plane tickets, Liu finally bought one and will get to see her sisters in Dalian later this month.

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