Hong Kong offers free flights after Covid isolation

By AFP   February 2, 2023 | 03:50 am PT
Hong Kong offers free flights after Covid isolation
Tourists ride a tour bus in Hong Kong, China, October 25, 2019. Photo by Reuters/Ammar Awad
Hong Kong is ready to welcome the world back, its leader said Thursday, as he pitched free flights and positive publicity to resurrect the once-vibrant global hub after three years of Covid-enforced isolation.

The government's rebranding campaign, "Hello, Hong Kong", bills itself as an effort to tell "good stories" about the southern Chinese city.

Promising "no isolation, no quarantine and no restrictions" during a speech to business and tourism heavyweights, Chief Executive John Lee announced 500,000 free air tickets for visitors to experience the city's "hustle and bustle."

The giveaway will open in March, with another 80,000 tickets up for grabs to residents in the summer.

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is probably the world's biggest welcome ever," Lee said.

Adherence to Beijing's zero-Covid doctrine of quarantine, closed borders and face masks kept Hong Kong largely virus-free until a deadly Omicron outbreak at the start of 2022.

But it also contributed to an economic recession and the exodus of more than 2.5% of the population.

Even as business leaders warned Hong Kong would need a full Covid exit plan before any meaningful reboot, officials insisted on gradually rolling back restrictions long after the rest of the world opted to live with the virus.

The controls closed off what was previously one of Asia's most connected cities.

Hong Kong welcomed just 600,000 visitors in 2022, less than 1% of 2018's figure.

More than 130 international companies have shuttered their Hong Kong offices over the past three years, while a recent survey of 253 Japanese companies showed securing quality workers was their top concern.

According to official figures, more than 140,000 people left Hong Kong's labor force last year, when the economy contracted by 3.5%.

Lee promised to correct the poor publicity he and other government officials have blamed for the metropolis's malaise.

"I will personally carry the promotional messages of our prowess as the world's freest economy and China's international financial centre," he said.

Speaking to AFP at the campaign launch, Peter Burnett, the former chair of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said "the proof will be in the pudding" for the reboot.

"At least they're doing something about it. And that to me is very, very encouraging."

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