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International Visitors Land Post-Pandemic Shutdown Reunions at JFK Airport

Hugs and hopes for a tourism boom greet the arrival of the first flights following the reopening of U.S. airports to visitors from 33 countries, from China to Brazil to the U.K.

New York resident Katie Mejias, foreground, embraces her sister, Rachel Wager, at JFK Airport after she is able to visit New York from England after the international COVID travel restrictions were lifted, Nov. 8, 2021.
New York resident Katie Mejias, foreground, embraces her sister, Rachel Wager, at JFK Airport after she is able to visit New York from England after the international COVID travel restrictions were lifted, Nov. 8, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Some New Yorkers embraced loved ones for the first time in nearly 20 months on Monday after the Biden administration lifted foreign travel bans put in place in response to the pandemic.

Shortly after their flights touched down at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, many foreign visitors shed tears of joy as they hugged their family and friends.

But not all of them.

“I’m British. I don’t do emotions,” quipped Antony Baird of Newcastle, England, 59, who flew British Airways across the pond to build a custom guitar and jam with his old buddy David Roe.

“It’s good seeing my mate,” Roe, 57, added. “It’s always great. It’s great to be finally allowed to travel.”

Since early 2020, the federal government has tried to slow the spread of the coronavirus by banning non-citizen, non-immigrant air travelers to the U.S. from 33 countries, including China, Mexico, India, Brazil and many in Europe. On Monday, those restrictions were dropped. Foreigners are now beginning to flock to the U.S.

“I’ve never been to the States, let alone New York,” said Rachel Wager, 44, of Cambridge, England, who came as soon as she could to see her sibling, Katie Mejias, 40, who lives in Queens. “My sister just moved here, so my family has been waiting for the travel ban to lift.”

Anthony Baird, right, flew from England Monday to visit childhood friend and New Jersey resident David Roe so the two could catch up and play music together, Nov. 8, 2021.
Anthony Baird, right, flew from England Monday to visit childhood friend and New Jersey resident David Roe so the two could catch up and play music together, Nov. 8, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

With few exceptions, adult travelers must now be fully vaccinated and provide proof of a negative COVID test within a day of their departure, federal officials say. Unvaccinated children must show proof of a negative test within three days of departure if traveling with a vaccinated adult or one day if alone or with an unvaccinated adult.

But not every vaccination is sufficient: Only vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization are acceptable — adding Coronavac, BBIBP-CorV, Corvaxin, AstraZeneca and Covishield to the J&J, Moderna and Pfizer shots used in the U.S.

Foreign travelers are also arriving on foot, car, bus and train, after the U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada opened to international visitors on Monday.

Boosting Tourism

Departing from Heathrow Airport Monday morning, one flight each from Virgin Atlantic and British Airways made a spectacular synchronized takeoff en route to JFK.

British Airways will be operating six flights a day from Heathrow to JFK, according to Bloomberg News, down from as many as a dozen daily pre-pandemic — and with all its 747 jumbo jets retired.

The lifting of international travel restrictions on Monday coincided with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s $450 billion pledge to boost the state’s tourism industry.

In 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year, New York City welcomed a record 67 million tourists. The city expects to welcome 36.4 million tourists by year’s end, with 4.6 million of them coming from other countries, according to tourism bureau NYC & Co.

“Our tourism industry represents the essence of what sets New York apart from the rest,” Hochul told a crowd gathered at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. “New York can’t come back from this pandemic unless our tourism industry and its workers come back.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke about bringing back tourism the day international COVID travel restrictions were lifted, Nov. 8, 2021.
Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke about bringing back tourism the day international COVID travel restrictions were lifted, Nov. 8, 2021.
Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Under the motto “Bring Back Tourism, Bring Back Jobs,” she said the recovery package would reenergize the industry by providing payments to the hardest-hit workers, investments in small businesses, and marketing around the country and world.

“Today is a major milestone,” Hochul said. “It is the day we welcome back our international travelers. So those of you who’ve enjoyed going to the airport without a crowd: Sorry, those days are over. But that is a good thing.”

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