Coronavirus: limited flights and strict rules blamed for keeping foreigners away from Hong Kong

·7-min read

Expensive airfares, limited flight options and strict quarantine rules are deterring visitors from heading to Hong Kong, despite officials announcing foreigners can travel to the city for the first time in two years from next month, business groups have said.

Hotel operators told the Post on Monday that most of their summer bookings consisted of local residents, as the travel and business sectors called for the further easing of restrictions to bring in more foreigners.

While Switzerland’s flag carrier will resume a service to Hong Kong next month and Cathay Pacific has scheduled more flights from June, other airlines have adopted a more cautious approach.

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Last week, Hong Kong announced that fully vaccinated non-residents would be allowed into the city for the first time in two years, while the threshold for suspending incoming flights carrying infected passengers will be relaxed from Sunday.

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Hong Kong and mainland China have adhered to a strict “dynamic-zero” strategy to combat the coronavirus, while the rest of the world has opted to reopen to international travel.

Under the relaxed rules, the threshold for imposing flight bans will be raised from three passengers found to be infected with Covid-19 upon arrival to five, or 5 per cent of those on a single flight, whichever is greater, while the length of time routes are suspended will be cut from seven days to five.

All arrivals at Hong Kong International Airport will also be required to take a rapid antigen test (RAT), in addition to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. Those who test negative via RAT can take dedicated transport to undergo seven days of quarantine at a designated hotel, while waiting for their PCR result.

A source familiar with government policy said arrivals would continue to be quarantined at hotels, as most homes in the city were unsuitable for such purposes.

At present, 46 quarantine hotels have provided about 12,500 rooms, offering bookings from May up until July 31. Another four locations will also be available in June and July.

The Post found that while 31 hotels had bookings available from next month, 20 of these cost between HK$1,150 and HK$5,950 (US$146 to US$758) per night. At the Cordis, Hong Kong a hotel room cost HK$1,500 per night from May 1.

Filipino passengers arrive in Hong Kong on April 1. Photo: Felix Wong
Filipino passengers arrive in Hong Kong on April 1. Photo: Felix Wong

A government website also showed that half of the 31 locations were almost at full capacity in May.

Eleven other hotels only had available rooms in June or July that cost between HK$630 and HK$1,890 per night, with the exception of one venue that cost HK$6,181 per night from June 2.

Two locations were fully booked up until July, while the government website showed that 18 and 10 hotels were almost full or had a limited supply of rooms in May, respectively.

A spokeswoman for Dorsett Hospitality International, which runs four designated quarantine hotels and will offer a fifth location next month, said their predicted occupancy rate for the summer was 70 to 80 per cent.

She attributed the company’s estimate to many overseas residents and students planning to return home to see their families.

Nina Hotels public relations manager Helen Cheung Hoi-yan said the group did not expect many bookings from tourists or business travellers at their three designated quarantine hotels due to the current travel restrictions.

“Businessmen may only visit Hong Kong and undergo a seven-day quarantine if they have something very important to deal with,” she said.

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Josie Bristow, Ovolo’s assistant director of marketing, said the company’s two hotels were fully booked until mid-May by Hongkongers planning to return home.

“We haven’t seen an influx of bookings [by foreigners] as of right now, but we assume that it will happen around June,” she said.

Winnie Chan, association manager at the Federation of Hong Kong Hotel Owners, said the industry was hoping for a further easing of travel restrictions.

“If international travellers will book other hotels to stay in after their quarantine, it will help hotels that did not convert to quarantine hotels,” she said.

Chan said the association was already in talks with the government about supplying more quarantine hotels.

With fewer international flights currently operating compared with before the pandemic, airline fares have increased. Direct flights to Europe cost upwards of HK$11,000, with some travellers complaining on social media about the prices.

As the city gradually reopens to the world, Cathay is set to increase the number of flights to Hong Kong from June.

According to the company’s website, only two flights to Hong Kong from London were available in April. The number will rise to three in May, and then to a daily service from June 7 to June 30, while three daily flights will operate on June 7, 17 and 27. Tickets to London will cost upwards of HK$11,000.

Cathay also plans to operate more flights to Hong Kong from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand from June.

Switzerland’s flag carrier, which suspended its service to Hong Kong last December, will resume a weekly flight to the city from May 7.

Swiss International Air Lines will fly weekly between Zurich and Hong Kong in May and June, but no flights were being planned for the same route from July to September.

The airline planned to resume travel to the city again in October, a spokeswoman for the carrier said.

A spokeswoman for Emirates said the airline had “no plans to ramp up until restrictions are eased in Hong Kong”.

Other carriers were not accepting bookings for flights to Hong Kong until later in the year.

Virgin Atlantic Airways confirmed to the Post that it would not resume flights from London until September, while the online service schedule for British Airways indicated travel to Hong Kong would start from September 2.

“Due to the continued impact the coronavirus has had on some regions around the world, we are operating a reduced and dynamic schedule,” a British Airways spokeswoman said.

The price of rooms at most quarantine hotels range from HK$1,150 to HK$5,950 per night. Photo: Dickson Lee
The price of rooms at most quarantine hotels range from HK$1,150 to HK$5,950 per night. Photo: Dickson Lee

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry body for airlines, said the easing of border measures was a step forward, but more needed to be done to rebuild Hong Kong’s connectivity and support the recovery of the aviation sector.

“The need to be quarantined continues to be a disincentive for many people considering travel to Hong Kong, especially when many other cities in Asia are already allowing quarantine free-travel,” said Albert Tjoeng, the association’s spokesman.

While the city had eased the threshold for suspending flights that bring in infected passengers and reduced the ban period, the reality was airlines still faced uncertainty, he added.

So far this year, 76 flight suspensions have been imposed, with 10 currently in effect for a week. Among recent bans were two routes flown by Cathay Pacific Airways, as well as flights by Qatar Airways, Turkish Airways and Emirates.

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Johannes Hack, chief executive of the German Chamber of Commerce, said allowing non-residents into the city was a good step and he hoped more would follow soon.

“In the context of business, it’s clear that with executives’ schedules being tight and everywhere else back to normal, even a reduced quarantine and the risk of flight bans will still put Hong Kong in a comparatively less attractive position,” he said.

David Graham, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce, said the removal of the restriction on non-residents would encourage much-needed business travel into Hong Kong by executives based outside the city.

Graham said the flight suspension mechanism had continued to result in logistical issues for both airlines and passengers.

“We continue to request the government to move towards the removal of the mechanism in its entirety as soon as possible,” he said.

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