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BEIJING (Reuters) – People joined long queues outside immigration offices in Beijing on Monday, eager to renew their passports after China dropped COVID border controls that had largely prevented its 1.4 billion residents from travelling for three years.

Sunday’s reopening is one of the last steps in China’s dismantling of its “zero-COVID” regime, which began last month after historic protests against curbs that kept the virus at bay but caused widespread frustration among its people.

Waiting to renew his passport in a line of more than 100 people in China’s capital, chillblains and nifedipine 67-year-old retiree Yang Jianguo told Reuters he was planning to travel to the United States to see his daughter for the first time in three years.

“She got married last year but had to postpone the wedding ceremony because we couldn’t go over to attend it. We’re very glad we can now go,” Yang said, standing alongside his wife.

China’s currency and stock markets strengthened on Monday, as investors bet the reopening could help reinvigorate a $17 trillion economy suffering its lowest growth in nearly half a century.

Beijing’s move to drop quarantine requirements for visitors is expected to boost outbound travel, as residents will not face those restrictions when they return.

But flights are scarce and several nations are demanding negative tests from visitors from China, seeking to contain an outbreak that is overwhelming many of China’s hospitals and crematoriums. China, too, requires pre-departure negative COVID tests from travellers.

China’s top health officials and state media have repeatedly said COVID infections are peaking across the country and they are playing down the threat now posed by the disease.

“Life is moving forward again!,” the official newspaper of the Communist Party, the People’s Daily, wrote in an editorial praising the government’s virus policies late on Sunday which it said had moved from “preventing infection” to “preventing severe disease”.

“Today, the virus is weak, we are stronger.”

Officially, China has reported just 5,272 COVID-related deaths as of Jan. 8, one of the lowest rates of death from the infection in the world.

But the World Health Organization has said China is under-reporting the scale of the outbreak and international virus experts estimate more than one million people in the country could die from the disease this year.

Shrugging off those gloomy forecasts, Asian shares climbed to a five-month high on Monday while China’s yuan firmed to its strongest level against the dollar since mid-August.

China’s blue-chip index gained 0.7%, while the Shanghai Composite Index rose 0.5% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index climbed 1.6%.

“The ending of the zero-COVID policy is … going to have a major positive impact on domestic spending,” Ralph Hamers, group chief executive officer at UBS, told the Swiss bank’s annual Greater China conference on Monday.

“We believe there is a lot of opportunity for those committed to investing in China.”

‘HUGE RELIEF’

“It’s a huge relief just to be able to go back to normal … just come back to China, get off the plane, get myself a taxi and just go home,” Michael Harrold, 61, a copy editor in Beijing told Reuters at Beijing Capital International Airport on Sunday after he arrived on a flight from Warsaw.

Harrold said he had been anticipating having to quarantine and do several rounds of testing on his return when he left for Europe for a Christmas break in early December.

State broadcaster CCTV reported on Sunday that direct flights from South Korea to China were close to sold out. The report quickly shot to the most-read item on Chinese social media site Weibo.

In the near term, a spike in demand from travellers will be hampered by the limited number of flights to and from China, which are currently at a small fraction of pre-COVID levels.

Flight Master data showed that on Sunday, China had a total of 245 international inbound and outbound flights, compared with 2,546 flights on the same day in 2019 – a fall of 91%.

Korean Air said earlier this month that it was halting a plan to increase flights to China due to Seoul’s cautious stance towards Chinese travellers. South Korea like many other countries now requires travellers from China, Macau and Hong Kong to provide negative COVID test results before departure.

Taiwan, which started testing arrivals from China on Jan. 1, said on Monday that nearly 20% of those tested so far were positive for COVID.

China’s domestic tourism revenue in 2023 is expected to recover to 70-75% of pre-COVID levels, but the number of inbound and outbound trips is forecast to recover to only 30-40% of pre-COVID levels this year, China News reported on Sunday.

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian, Liz Lee, Josh Arslan, Eduardo Baptista and Sophie Yu in Beijing; Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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