SAN YSIDRO, California: A woman pushes a cart with luggage and boxes upon entry from Mexico into the United States at the San Ysidro Land Port Entry yesterday. - AFP

NEW YORK: Long lines formed at border crossings yesterday as the United States reopened to foreign visitors vaccinated against COVID-19, ending 20 months of restrictions that separated families, hobbled tourism and strained diplomatic ties. From Rainbow Bridge at the US-Canada border to Mexico's Tijuana crossing at San Ysidro, California, cars, motor homes and masked pedestrians clogged entry points before dawn as they sought eagerly anticipated reunions with family members and friends.

At airports in Europe, passengers queued excitedly to board planes bound for American cities, while those entering the country by land - some seen lugging suitcases and pushing bag-filled strollers under the watchful eyes of border patrol agents - were greeted by hours-long wait times. The ban, imposed by then president Donald Trump in early 2020 and upheld by his successor Joe Biden, had become emblematic of the upheavals caused by the pandemic.

Trump initially closed US borders to China travelers in Feb 2020. A month later he extended the ban to large swathes of the world, including the European Union, Britain, India and Brazil, in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Overland visitors from Mexico and Canada were also banned.

At Frankfurt airport in Germany, Hans Wolf was queueing at the check-in counter, visibly moved, bound for Houston to visit his son whom he had not seen in two years. "We booked the first flights in March and had since then rebooked I think 28 times, and spent so much money in between that this flight must really be profitable now," he said.

At London Heathrow Airport, two planes from rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic heading to New York took off at the same time from parallel runways to mark the occasion. To cope with surging demand, airlines have increased the number of transatlantic flights and plan to use larger planes.

Along the US-Mexico border, many cities have faced economic struggles due to anti-COVID trade restrictions. Reflecting widespread anticipation of the reopening, currency exchange centers in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez were hit by a shortage of dollars. The Ciudad Juarez government has implemented a special system to direct traffic, with portable toilets on the three bridges crossing into the United States "as waiting times of up to four hours are estimated", said the local director of road safety, Cesar Alberto Tapia.

In the United States' northern neighbor, seniors will be able to resume their annual trips to Florida to escape the bitter Canadian winters. Before sunrise, passenger cars and motor homes lined up on Rainbow Bridge straddling the border at Niagara Falls. But the cost of PCR tests that Canada requires for cross-border travel - up to $250 - can be prohibitive. Ann Patchett, an Ontario resident, told the Ottawa Citizen it will cost $500 for her and her husband to go south to visit family. "Do you want to hug your children? Do you want to tuck your grandchildren into bed?" she asked. "It's very frustrating."

Lifting the travel ban will affect more than 30 countries, but entry into the United States will not be unregulated. US authorities plan to closely monitor travelers' vaccination status and will still require them to present negative COVID tests. The reopening will happen in two phases. Starting yesterday, vaccines were required for "non-essential" trips - such as family visits or tourism - although unvaccinated travelers will still be allowed into the country for "essential" trips.

A second phase, beginning in early January, will require all visitors to be fully vaccinated to enter the United States by land, no matter the reason for their trip. US health authorities have said all vaccines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization would be accepted for entry by air.

Washington has yet to comment on Europe's recent COVID caseload increase. The WHO has expressed "grave concern" over the rising pace of infections in Europe, warning that the trajectory could mean "another half a million COVID-19 deaths" by February. But many, including House Republican Elise Stefanik whose New York district borders Canada, expressed a sense of relief at the US reopening. "Finally, the day we have been waiting for," she said in a video statement. "We have worked hard on a bipartisan basis, and while this is far too late, November 8th is here and we want to make sure that this border re-opening is as smooth as possible." - AFP