Hong Kong scrapping quarantine for international arrivals


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Hong Kong (AFP) – Hong Kong on Friday announced it would end mandatory hotel quarantine and lift some of the world’s toughest travel restrictions that have battered the economy and kept the financial hub internationally isolated.

The long-awaited move will bring relief to residents and businesses demanding the Asian business hub resume working with the rest of the world to travel freely and live with the coronavirus.

For the past two and a half years, Hong Kong has stuck to a version of China’s strict zero-Covid rules, deepening the brain drain as competing business centers reopen.

The announcement leaves mainland China as the only major economy still to adhere to a long quarantine on international arrivals.

Chief Executive John Lee said the current three-day hotel quarantine would be reduced to zero for those arriving from overseas and Taiwan.

From September 26, travelers will be subject to PCR tests on arrival and will be barred from restaurants and bars for the first three days under a system authorities have described as “0+3”.

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“Under this agreement, the quarantine hotel system will be lifted,” Lee told reporters.

Hong Kong was once one of the world’s busiest airports, but passenger numbers this year are just 3.8 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

recession

The government has faced mounting pressure from residents, business leaders and even some of its own health advisers to end the quarantine, particularly after the coronavirus swept through the city earlier in the year.

Since that wave, the number of local infections far outweighed those from overseas, but authorities still abided by quarantine rules.

At its peak last year, the quarantine lasted 21 days and the economic strain was heavy.

The city is currently in a tech recession – two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

On Thursday, Chief Financial Officer Paul Chan warned Hong Kong is likely to end 2022 in full recession, while the budget deficit is expected to widen to HK$100 billion (US$12.7 billion), double initial estimates.

HK Express, the low-cost wing of city carrier Cathay Pacific, saw its website inundated with inquiries on Friday, warning customers of booking delays.

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But Hong Kong is unlikely to see a sudden spate of new flights. Many global airlines have reduced routes or simply stopped flying there in the last two years.

Cathay currently provides about 45 percent of the seats but has previously warned it can only expand routes by a third this year due to difficulties in finding staff and aircraft.

Many of its idle aircraft were parked in the arid climate of Australia’s interior.

Rivals reopened

Despite adhering to China’s zero-Covid rules, Hong Kong’s experience of the coronavirus has not been the same as that of the mainland.

As in China, Singapore, New Zealand and Taiwan, travel restrictions in Hong Kong helped stamp out the first wave as the pandemic left a wave of deaths and illness in much of the world.

But as an international hub, it has always struggled to keep the virus out indefinitely, unable to resort to the kind of citywide lockdowns employed on the authoritarian mainland.

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When the Omicron variant arrived, it sped through most of the unvaccinated elderly victims and overwhelmed hospitals that weren’t adequately prepared.

Despite strict travel restrictions and social distancing rules, Hong Kong has had one of the world’s highest per capita death rates from the coronavirus, with nearly 10,000 deaths in a population of 7.4 million.

For comparison, nearby Taiwan, which announced Thursday it would lift quarantine rules in mid-October, has a similar number of deaths but its population is three times that.

Hong Kong’s approach was in stark contrast to financial rivals like London, Singapore, New York and Tokyo, which have steadily reopened this year.

Rival Singapore is hosting a series of financial and business conferences in the coming months, as well as a Formula 1 race next week.

Around four million people will visit the city-state this year.

Hong Kong plans to host a banking summit in November to show the city is back in business.



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