Hong Kong airport chief says offer of free flights won’t be enough and predicts it will take up to 2 years for a full tourism recovery

·3 min read
Lam Yik—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hong Kong’s offer of free flights won’t be enough to immediately revive the city’s tourism sector after years of COVID restrictions, the head of the city’s airport predicted on Sunday.

Last week, the semiautonomous Chinese city announced its “Hello, Hong Kong” campaign: a series of events and incentives meant to attract visitors back to the city after the government rolled back almost all of its travel restrictions earlier this year. The centerpiece of the campaign: 500,000 free airplane tickets for potential visitors to be distributed from March onwards.

Yet Fred Lam, CEO of Hong Kong’s Airport Authority, which operates the city’s international airport, thinks the giveaway won’t be enough to bring Hong Kong back to its pre-pandemic heyday.

“We need at least 18 months to two years to return to pre-pandemic levels,” Lam told local radio on Sunday, according to the South China Morning Post. He predicted that inbound traffic would reach 80% of its pre-pandemic total by December.

Inbound traffic into Hong Kong is slowly recovering after almost three years of pandemic controls. Over 830,000 people flew into the city’s airport in January, according to data compiled by independent analyst David Webb.

That’s far more than some of the lows recorded during the pandemic, such as the mere 8,900 arrivals recorded in March 2022. Yet it’s still a far cry from the millions of visitors Hong Kong used to attract before the pandemic, such as the 56 million travelers recorded in 2019.

Hong Kong could use an economic boost. The city’s economy shrank by 3.5% in 2022, yet the government on Wednesday said it hoped to see a recovery in services activity in 2023 thanks to “an expected strong rebound of inbound tourism,” particularly from mainland China. As of Monday, those who have been in Hong Kong for at least seven days can now enter mainland China without any testing or quarantine requirements.

‘Hong Kong may not be their priority’

Hong Kong has removed almost all of its travel restrictions regarding the COVID pandemic. Visitors arriving in Hong Kong must only have a negative COVID test result before departing.

For much of the pandemic, Hong Kong had some of the world’s toughest rules for overseas arrivals. Authorities required most international arrivals to quarantine at a hotel for as long as three weeks. The city at times completely barred arrivals from countries deemed high-risk from entering, forcing Hong Kong residents to spend weeks “washing out” in other locations.

Officials also slapped airlines with onerous restrictions. Authorities would suspend flight routes for two weeks if a given flight passed a certain threshold of positive cases. Airline crews also ran the risk of being sent to government quarantine if health officials found a positive case among them.

These rules led many carriers, like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, to suspend flights to Hong Kong entirely. Over 40% of the airlines that flew to Hong Kong before the pandemic have stopped, according to the South China Morning Post.

While some airlines have restored flights, Lam admitted progress was slow. “Many airlines have said the flights can only return after March,” he noted on Sunday. Lam said his team would appeal to foreign airlines directly, and “knock on their doors” to get them to put flights back on their schedules.

“Hong Kong may not be their priority,” he said.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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