Paul Campbell had waited nearly two years to reunite with his German fiancée at Boston's Logan Airport on Monday, the day the US eased travel restrictions imposed on much of the world since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
“I'm just ecstatic that she's here, I'm happy,” said Mr Campbell, a retired fireman from Vermont who greeted her with a heart-shaped balloon.
“Our relationship is still thriving even though we've been apart for two years.”
At John F Kennedy International Airport in New York, a child held a sign reading, “Do I look bigger?” as he waited for the first British Airways flight from London's Heathrow. “730 days missed u! Aunty Jill + Uncle Mark,” his sign said.
The travel ban, imposed since early 2020, barred access to non-US citizens travelling from 33 countries — including China, India and much of Europe — and had also restricted overland entry from Mexico and Canada.
While travel continued for residents of other countries and visitors falling under exceptions, the ban eliminated the sources of more than half the visitors to the US in 2019, the trade group US Travel reported.
Declines in international visitation since the start of the pandemic resulted in about $300 billion in lost export income and a loss of more than one million US jobs.
“Today America is open for business. That is our message to the world,” US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Reuters at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.
For many arriving on packed flights from Europe or lining up at border crossings in Canada and Mexico, Monday's was an emotional journey that ended in the arms of joyful relatives clutching flowers, balloons and home-made signs.
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.
Travel bookings for the holiday season in the US continue to rise rapidly, airline and industry data show.
US land borders also reopened to non-essential travel on Monday.
Canadian travellers, particularly retirees headed to US sun spots, flocked to the US land border to drive across for the first time in 20 months, although testing requirements could dampen short-stay travel.
Janet Simoni, who lives in Ontario, crossed the US-Canada border a little after midnight and drove to the house near Detroit where her husband lives.
“This whole half of my life has been missing for almost two years,” said Ms Simoni.
In Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, across from the Texan city of El Paso, a line of about 20 people formed early. They crossed and embraced family on the other side of the border, a Reuters witness said.
“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.
“I said, if they don't reopen, I’m going to take a plane.”
Hundreds of migrants have arrived at Mexican border cities such as Tijuana in recent days, hoping the reset will make it easier to seek asylum in the US, despite warnings from advocates that the reopening is for people who have papers.
Aysha Mathew struggled to hold back tears after her mother and sister arrived at JFK on Monday.
Ms Mathew was holding her toddler, Adam, and pushing a stroller with her infant, Aaron, whom her mother and sister were meeting for the first time.
“It's so surreal to finally be here and see them meet in person,” Ms Mathew said. “I'm really, really happy.”