The resumption of flights may be a step in the right direction. However, it remains to be seen if Hong Kong will prioritize the reopening of the border with the Mainland over opening the international border.
Hong Kong will resume international flight operations from nine countries, including the U.S., UK, France, and India, from April 1. Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam announced that the mandatory hotel quarantine period for incoming travelers would also be reduced from 14 to seven days.
Travelers are required to carry a negative nucleic acid test report to enter Hong Kong and would need to undergo a Covid test at the airport before proceeding for hotel quarantine. A PCR test would be conducted on day 5, if that tests negative, and all the rapid antigen tests show negative results, then travelers can choose to leave their hotel quarantine after seven days. However, a PCR test on day 12 is mandatory for all.
As the Omicron outbreak surged worldwide in January, the island nation imposed a flight ban from eight countries — U.S., UK, France, Australia, Canada, India, The Philippines, and Pakistan. Nepal got added to this list in February.
Lam’s administration has been criticized and attacked for its strict zero-Covid policy. However, in a press meet on January 22, Lam had said that Hong Kong was not aiming to attain an absolute zero as a strategy. “The alternative to this type of strategy will be the so-called ‘living with the virus’ — in other words, we open our borders, we have no social distancing measures, we will, like one country, announce that you don’t even have to wear your mask.”
Explaining why Hong Kong does not possess the prerequisites to go for the “living with the virus” approach, Lam said: “One is because we still want to open the border, not only with the Mainland but also with the rest of the world; and secondly, our vaccination rate is not yet ideal.”
However, after a massive brain drain and with its international status at stake, the global financial hub has finally decided to resume international flight operations with some of its biggest inbound markets and opt for more relaxed quarantine methods.
Concerned about the socio-economic development, Lam said they would consult with various stakeholders to come up with a more permanent pathway for Hong Kong to tackle any public health crisis in a more targeted manner that will, other than the overriding mission of protecting the safety and health of the Hong Kong people, be also based on evidence. “We should also take into account the impact on the social and economic development,” she said.
Hong Kong’s provisional visitor arrivals of February were 1,810, a 52.4 percent decrease year-on-year. Hong Kong saw a cumulative visitor arrival of around 9,700 from January to February this year, a 1.8 percent drop year-on-year. Following stringent border control norms, a majority of inbound travelers visited Hong Kong for family visits or out of necessity. The number of leisure visitors remained close to zero.
Hong Kong’s travel and operational restrictions continue to constrain flag carrier Cathay Pacific’s ability to operate more passenger flight capacity. Calling the operating environment “very challenging”, Cathay’s chief customer and commercial officer Ronald Lam said of February numbers in a release: “We operated below 2 percent of pre-Covid levels, a reduction of about 28 percent compared with January 2022.”
The airline carried a total of 31,253 passengers in February, an increase of 47.9 percent compared to February 2021, and a 98.9 percent decrease compared to February 2019.
“We will always, as an international city and a very important business and aviation hub, have to take into account not only connectivity with the outside world but also connectivity with the Mainland,” Lam said.
Photo credit: Hong Kong is set to resume flights to nine nations from April. Florian Wehde / Unsplash