Travellers walk at a terminal hall of the Beijing Capital International Airport
Travellers walk at a terminal hall of the Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, China March 23, 2022.

Online searches for air tickets on international routes with China surged after Beijing unexpectedly said it would slash COVID-19 quarantine norms, travel platforms said on Wednesday, a sign of pent-up demand after two years of tough curbs.

The border curbs had hit business travel and thinned to a trickle the number of Chinese going abroad, whether to the beaches of Thailand or the shopping streets of South Korea, which had come to rely on their custom over the prior decade.

China's Qunar said searches on its travel platform more than doubled within an hour of the news that time in quarantine had been halved for travelers arriving from abroad, the first major easing since early 2020, soon after the pandemic began.

Purchases of tickets for international travel jumped 60% over last week, it added.

Rival platform reported a similar rise in searches, and flagged a jump in interest for tickets to China from locations such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

Shares in mainland tourism companies were largely flat on Wednesday, however, as concerns over inflation and the possibility of recession returned after a jump of more than 5% on the previous day's news.

China's relaxation was welcomed by groups ranging from foreign business chambers to travel operators.

But many sounded a note of caution, saying they still did not anticipate a quick resumption, citing a shortage of flights and limits on new passports for Chinese looking to go abroad for reasons deemed to not be essential.

Airlines flying into China are required to limit their load factors by 40% to 75%. The country also has a "circuit breaker" system requiring carriers to suspend flights if they have a certain number of COVID-positive passengers.

As recently as Tuesday, the number of international flights, including regional flights to Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan, for this year stood at just about 4% of pre-COVID levels, according to consultancy Variflight.

Ticket prices also range in multiples above normal. One-way tickets from Singapore to China's business hub of Shanghai cost between 50,000 and 70,000 yuan ($7,460 and $10,594) on China Eastern Airlines for the period beween July and September, for example.

"It is not possible to arrange international group travel," said Zhou Weihong, deputy general manager of Shanghai-based travel agency Spring Tour.

China's easing prompted wide discussion that drew more than 28 million views on its Twitter-like Weibo platform. "This was the best news of today, especially for those working abroad," one commentator said on Tuesday.

New local cases have eased sharply from the peak of China's most recent outbreak in April and May, which had brought drastic lockdowns in several cities, including the largest, Shanghai.

Still, China has vowed to stick to its tough curbs even as the rest of the world tries to live with the virus.

On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping said the ruling Communist Party's strategy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic was "correct and effective" and should be firmly adhered to.

Mainland China reported 129 new coronavirus cases for June 28, 24 of them symptomatic and 105 asymptomatic, the National Health Commission said on Wednesday, down from the previous day's 100 new cases.

($1=6.7016 Chinese yuan renminbi)