In an attempt to reconnect with the rest of the world, Hong Kong is relaxing its pandemic travel restrictions.
Starting September 26, 2022, incoming travelers will no longer be required to undergo mandatory hotel quarantine. Instead, they will have to undergo three days of medical surveillance and will receive a yellow-colored health code that forbids them from visiting public venues, including restaurants, bars, gyms, and libraries.
In addition, the inbound travelers must conduct daily COVID-19 rapid tests for seven days and PCR tests at the airport on the day of their arrival, and at recognized institutes two, four, and six days after they arrive.
A policy U-turn amid an economic crisis
The relaxation is viewed as a U-turn from the city's alignment with the mainland Chinese zero-COVID policy. Previously, the Hong Kong government prioritized reopening the border with mainland China. Many pro-establishment politicians lauded Chinese President Xi Jinping's instructions on Hong Kong's fight against the outbreaks of Omicron in February 2022 and slammed suggestions to loosen pandemic control restrictions. Lawyer-activist Kevin Yam highlighted pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho and commented:
Netizens did a collage of #HongKong officials and politicians who spoke against living with COVID (and now look like fools with HK loosening restrictions today). My favourite is legislator Junius Ho saying that advocacy for living with COVID contravenes National Security Law. pic.twitter.com/WeVkFaVTTU
— Kevin Yam 任建峰 (@kevinkfyam) September 23, 2022
Edward Leung, a lawmaker of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, also claimed that living with COVID is like making friends with Death. And Lo Chung-Mau, the current Secretary of Health, said living with COVID would be a pathway to hell.
However, zero-COVID has come with massive costs. Hong Kong has lost the status of an international aviation hub as travelers avoid visiting the city thanks to the mandatory hotel quarantine restrictions. In addition, hundreds of international and regional exhibitions and events, such as the Standard Chartered Marathon, originally hosted in Hong Kong, were moved to Singapore. In the latest rankings from the Global Financial Centres Index, Singapore has overtaken Hong Kong to become Asia’s top financial center.
In response to the economic crisis, Huang Liuquan, a Beijing official in Hong Kong, signaled the Hong Kong government could loosen restrictions days before the concrete COVID policy adjustment was announced:
While we will do our best to control the epidemic, we aim to have the maximum connection with the international world and also to reduce the inconvenience to people who arrive in Hong Kong […] That is a very clear goal.
Yet, many in the business sector say the relaxation has come far too late, as spelled out by activist investor David Webb on Twitter:
Too little, too late: Today's #HK COVID briefing was devoid of any reference to what our competitors are doing. Arrivals will still be welcomed with a PCR test, treated like lepers for 3 days and have to turn up for PCR testing 3 more times on days 2/4/6. 1/5
— Webb-site (@webbhk) September 23, 2022
In his Twitter thread, Webb further pointed out that local COVID restrictions, including the four-person outdoor gathering limit, leave-home-safe and health code check-in for restaurants and public venues, the eight-person indoor dining limit, mandatory outdoor mask-wearing, among other policies, would deter travelers from coming to Hong Kong.
Several business groups, including the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Industry Association and Eurocham, urged for a full lifting of COVID restrictions:
International business groups said only a full reopening could reverse the direction of Hong Kong.
“It has to be no restrictions, no quarantine, no tests,”said Eurocham vice chair, with 20% of chambers’ members having left HK.
— Laura Westbrook (@LauraWestbrook) September 24, 2022
Moreover, the city’s fiscal situation is “worse than expected” as its deficit will likely be over HKD 100 billion this year (over USD 127,000,000). The prolonged pandemic control restrictions have also transformed the city’s consumption habits and harmed local small businesses. The city's residents now prefer gatherings in private spaces and consuming takeaway food rather than dining out. Many eateries — particularly traditional Chinese dim sum and big table restaurants — had to close their businesses in Hong Kong:
HK’s better-late-than-never scrapping of travel curbs came unfortunately at a time when many small & medium businesses already got hurt
Over a dozen iconic eateries were forced to shut in a year, as a chef says: “Once it’s gone, it’s very hard to rebuild” https://t.co/l7ZF04H4gh
— Chan Ho-him (@ThomasHHChan) September 24, 2022
Meanwhile, the most visible effect of relaxation is outbound travel. Hong Kong residents are rushing to book flight tickets as part of the so-called “revenge travel” wave, meaning the post-pandemic travel uptick as housebound people splurge on vacations and tourism. Now that residents won't need to spend extra time and money on hotel quarantine when they return, Hong Kongers are rushing to make up for their two-year travel hiatus:
Another point made by economists is the risk of a near term hit to the HK economy, as the relaxation encourages an increase in outbound tourism without a rebound of inbound travel to compensate as travellers see the current 0+3/week of testing as too stringent… https://t.co/hbDVIF8fZa
— Primrose Riordan (@primroseriordan) September 25, 2022
Hong Kong had insisted it needed the zero-COVID policy to reopen its borders with mainland China. Yet, after two years, the city cannot reach Beijing's zero-COVID standard. Currently, Hong Kong residents still have to go through a seven-day mandatory hotel quarantine to enter China. Now that the city has decided to relax its restrictions, this would imply a continued disconnection with mainland China until Beijing adjusts its pandemic control policy.