Hong Kong cityscape at sunset. (photo via Nohead Lam/Dreamstime)
Mere weeks ago, Hong Kong—which had adhered to mainland China’s strict “Zero COVID” policy throughout most of the pandemic—finally rolled back some of its COVID-era travel restrictions.
The Special Administrative Region (SAR) eliminated its long-held quarantine requirement for international visitors and downgraded its pre-travel testing requirements from negative PCR tests to negative rapid antigen tests. However, travelers are still required to take post-arrival PCR tests on days 2, 4 and 6 of their visit, and take a rapid antigen test every day of the first week following their arrival.
But, now that the city, which had been a major Asian tourism and air travel hub pre-pandemic, is attempting to attract outside visitors again, it seems that airlines are having a hard time rebuilding their flight schedules to and from the destination.
In the first eight months of 2022, Hong Kong saw only 184,000 foreign arrivals, a monumental drop from the SAR’s pre-pandemic visitor counts—56 million tourist arrivals in 2019.
Seeking to remedy the situation, Hong Kong’s airport authority plans to give away 500,000 airline tickets, worth HK$2 billion ($254.8 million) for free, BBC News reported.
“The airport authority will finalize the arrangement with airline companies. Once the government announces it will remove all Covid-19 restrictions for inbound travelers, we’ll roll out the advertising campaigns for the free air tickets,” Dane Cheng, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board said.
Cheng explained that the free tickets were purchased to support Hong Kong’s airlines amid the COVID-19 slump. He said that the airport authority will be distributing them to inbound and outbound travelers in 2023.
Yesterday, Virgin Atlantic—owned by British billionaire Richard Branson—said it would cease to operate in Hong Kong, due to issues connected to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Urkraine. After maintaining a presence in the Asian aviation hub for three decades, the airline said it would close its Hong Kong office and stop flying between the SAR and London Heathrow entirely. It had actually already halted flights to Hong Kong In December 2021.
“Significant operational complexities due to the ongoing Russian airspace closure have contributed to the commercial decision not to resume flights in March 2023 as planned”, the U.K.-based carrier said. “We’re very sorry for the disappointment caused to our loyal customers on this route and anyone booked to travel from March 2023 will be offered a refund, voucher or the option to rebook on an alternative Virgin Atlantic route,” the airline added.
Virgin Atlantic isn’t commercial aviation’s only casualty of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Multiple airlines have decided to suspend certain routes or take longer, alternative routes to avoid entering Russian and Ukrainian airspace.
Prudence Lai, a senior analyst at the market research firm Euromonitor International, told the BBC that she believes the offer of free tickets for flights to and from Hong Kong will help to speed the rebuilding of the city’s standing as a sought-after travel destination.
“The pre-Covid status of Hong Kong represents the market potential of a full recovery,” she said. “However, this is highly dependent on when mainland Chinese tourists will return, as mainland China contributes to more than half of Hong Kong’s inbound arrivals and travel receipts,” she added.
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