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Passengers walk past airline staff as part of a welcoming event after arriving on a flight from the UK, following the easing of pandemic travel restrictions at JFK international airport in New York on Nov. 8, 2021.ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Packed intercontinental flights touched down and people embraced relatives at land borders on Monday after the United States lifted restrictions imposed on travellers from much of the world when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The travel ban, first imposed in early 2020, had barred access to non-U.S. citizens travelling from 33 countries – including China, India and much of Europe – and had also restricted overland entry from Mexico and Canada.

“Today America is open for business. That is our message to the world,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Reuters in an interview at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

Jez Cartwright, 49, was one of the first passengers off BA001, the first British Airways flight to land at JFK airport from London’s Heathrow airport.

“It’s brilliant to be on a full plane again,” he said.

Earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, travellers boarding planes at airports in Frankfurt, Paris and London said they were eager to reunite with family and friends.

“I was meant to go just before COVID happened, and obviously it’s been delayed this long, so it’s really exciting to finally be able to go,” Alice Keane, travelling to Miami to see her sister, said at London’s Heathrow airport.

Months of pent-up demand triggered a major spike in bookings on Monday, with travellers only required to show official proof of vaccination and a recent, negative viral test.

No major issues at airports were flagged in an early morning call between airlines and U.S. government officials.

The flights were full, Virgin Atlantic chief executive officer Shai Weiss said on what he called a “major day of celebration,” while passenger volume was expected to remain high in coming weeks with the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Land border crossings

U.S. land borders also reopened to non-essential travel on Monday.

In Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, across from the Texan city of El Paso, a line of about 20 people formed early before crossing and embracing family on the other side of the border, a Reuters witness said. One of the people hadn’t seen their relatives in El Paso since March, 2020.

“We thought they were going to tell us again that they had decided not to open it,” said Lorena Hernandez, stroking her grown-up daughter’s hair and smiling broadly after they were reunited in El Paso. “I said, if they don’t reopen, I’m going to take a plane.”

Some inoculated Mexicans will not be able to enter the United States immediately if they received vaccines in Mexico that have not been approved by the World Health Organization, such as China’s CanSino and Russia’s Sputnik V.

Hundreds of migrants have arrived at Mexican border cities such as Tijuana in recent days, hoping the reset will make it easier to cross and seek U.S. asylum, despite warnings from advocates that the reopening is for people who have papers.

U.S.-bound travellers from Canada had to wait less than an hour at most border crossings on Monday morning with some longer lines at the Champlain, N.Y., and Port Huron, Mich., crossings, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

Marty Firestone, who owns Canadian travel insurance company Travel Secure, said October saw inquiries and purchases of travel insurance increase by 25 per cent compared to the same month in 2019. “What you’ve got is tremendous pent up demand,” Mr. Firestone said on Monday. “When the announcement came out [that the U.S. border was opening] they were like, ‘I’m out of here.’ ”

‘We might start crying’

Tears flowed, airline officials applauded and cameras flashed as one-year-old Kai Patel met his grandmother for the first time on Monday at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

After months of only being able to talk to her grandson via FaceTime, Bhavna Patel was elated to be hugging Kai and holding his hands as he toddled around the terminal.

“There’s no words,” she said, wiping her eyes. “How can you describe this feeling?”

Bhavna Patel and her daughter Bindiya were two of the passengers on BA001, the first New York-bound British Airways flight leaving Heathrow after the United States lifted COVID-19 restrictions that have barred much of the world from entering for over 20 months.

Then-president Donald Trump imposed the first COVID-19-related restrictions for air travellers from China who were non-U.S. citizens in January, 2020. The ban was extended to dozens of other countries afterward.

The British flag carrier marked the moment of the reopening with a first flight reserved for friends and families separated during the pandemic.

For nearly two years, the unprecedented restrictions have prevented families from gathering in person to celebrate weddings, grieve at funerals or meet new babies.

Kai’s father, Kushal, said the most painful part of the pandemic for him was not being able to introduce his son to his sister and mother sooner.

Asked what the family planned to do during Bhavna and Bindiya’s 10-day visit, Kushal Patel said he was going to “let them hug Kai as much as possible,” for starters.

“We’re trying to make up for a whole year of not getting to see each other,” he said.

Bhavna Patel agreed that all she wanted to do for the next week and a half was “sit and look” at her grandson.

“I have other relatives in New York, but I said, ‘these 10 days are just for him,’ ” she said, gazing fondly at Kai.

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