An aerial view shows buildings in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen from Hong Kong on Jan 4, 2023, ahead of the resumption of normal cross-border travel on Sunday. (PETER PARKS / AFP)

HONG KONG – The central government said on Thursday that residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region can travel to the mainland starting Jan 8 if they have negative results for COVID tests conducted in 48 hours before their arrival.

There will be no more restrictions on flight capacity from Sunday onwards, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council said in a statement.

The move came as Beijing accelerates the unwinding of its COVID rules.

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It resumption of quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and the mainland would be done in a "gradual and orderly" way, the office said.

The mainland will no longer require people to present COVID tests upon arrival from Hong Kong, while it will issue special tourism and business visas for mainland residents to visit Hong Kong from Sunday, the statement said.

The mainland will also increase flights with Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, it added.

Hong Kong dropped almost all of its COVID curbs in December but wearing face masks remains mandatory except while exercising.

People in Hong Kong have only been able to reach the mainland via the city's airport and two checkpoints – one at Shenzhen Bay and the other via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.

Most other border points including the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus have been closed since early 2020.

The mainland is set to reopen to the world on Sunday, welcoming international travelers and returning residents without the need to quarantine for the first time since 2020.

Hong Kong residents have flocked to clinics to get vaccinated against COVID ahead of the resumption of normal travel.

With inputs from Reuters