Hong Kong to scrap COVID-19 hotel quarantine for overseas arrivals from Sep 26
Travellers will be subject to PCR tests on arrival and will be unable to visit restaurants and bars for the first three days after entering Hong Kong.
HONG KONG: Hong Kong has announced that it will end mandatory hotel quarantine from Monday (Sep 26), ending some of the world's toughest travel curbs that have battered the economy and kept the finance hub globally isolated for the past two-and-a-half years.
All international arrivals will be able to return home or to the accommodation of their choice but will have to self-monitor for three days after entering the city.
They will be allowed to go to work or school but will not be allowed to enter bars or restaurants for the period, under a system authorities have dubbed "0+3".
"Under this arrangement, the quarantine hotel system will be cancelled," Chief Executive John Lee told reporters on Friday.
International arrivals currently spend three days in a self-paid hotel followed by four days of self-monitoring where they are allowed to move around the city. Hotel quarantine was as much as three weeks before being gradually eased earlier this year.
From Sep 26, travellers will be subject to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests on arrival.
A pre-flight PCR test which was required for travellers to Hong Kong 48 hours before flying will be replaced by a rapid antigen test.
Overseas arrivals will also need further PCR tests on days two, four and six in the city.
Tourists who test positive face being isolated in hotel rooms at their own expense. Most residents can isolate at home, but those who cannot may be sent to government facilities.
Strict pandemic rules continue to stay in place, including social distancing restrictions, mandatory mask wearing and digital health codes to enter public venues.
Group gatherings of more than four people in public remain banned.
Authorities also said they were lifting quotas on arrivals from mainland China - but those going in the opposite direction must still quarantine under Beijing's strict zero-COVID rules.
The long-awaited move will bring relief to residents and businesses who have been clamouring for the Asian business hub to rejoin the rest of the world in resuming unhindered travel and living alongside the coronavirus.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Hong Kong has adhered to a version of China's strict zero-COVID rules, deepening a brain drain as rival business hubs reopen.
The announcement leaves mainland China the only major economy still hewing to lengthy quarantine for international arrivals.
Hong Kong once boasted one of the world's busiest airports but passenger numbers this year are just 3.8 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
The government faced mounting pressure from residents, business leaders and even some of its own public health advisors to end quarantine, especially after the coronavirus tore through the city at the start of the year.
Since that wave, the number of local infections far outweighed those coming in from overseas but authorities still stuck with quarantine rules.
At its peak last year, quarantine lasted as long as 21 days and the economic toll has been severe.
The city is currently in a technical recession - two consecutive quarters of negative growth.
On Thursday, finance chief Paul Chan warned Hong Kong will likely end 2022 in a full recession while the fiscal deficit is expected to balloon to HK$100 billion (US$12.7 billion), twice initial estimates.
"For Hong Kong to truly regain competitiveness vis-a-vis other cities around the world, the announcement is not enough; Hong Kong should be totally connected to the world without hindrance," said local AmCham president Eden Woon.
Earlier this week, Lee said he was conscious that the city needed to retain its competitiveness, and that authorities were keen to bring back events and activities to the city.
Hong Kong is planning to host a banking summit in November, billed as a way to show the city is back in business.
The websites of both Cathay Pacific and its low-cost wing HK Express saw delays as customers rushed to make bookings.
But it is unlikely Hong Kong will suddenly see a flurry of new flights. Many global airlines have reduced routes or simply stopped flying there in the past two years.
Cathay currently supplies about 45 per cent of seats into and out of the city, but had previously warned it will only be able to increase routes by one-third this year because of the difficulties in finding staff and planes.
Cathay said it would add "more than 200 pairs of passenger flights" in October to both regional and long-haul destinations.
Many of its unused aircraft have been parked in the dry climate of interior Australia.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong's government announced that it would maintain current social distancing measures until Oct 5.
"The epidemic has stabilised and has begun to show a downward trend. The pressure on the public medical system has eased slightly. Now is a critical moment to further stabilise and control the epidemic," it said in a statement.
"As such, the government has decided to continue the current social distancing measures for another 14-day cycle."
Although it stuck to China's zero-COVID rules, Hong Kong's experience of the pandemic was not the same as the mainland's.
Like China, Singapore, New Zealand and Taiwan, Hong Kong's travel curbs helped stamp out the virus in 2020 as the pandemic left a wave of death across much of the rest of the globe.
But as an international hub, Hong Kong struggled to keep the virus out indefinitely and could not deploy the kind of city-wide lockdowns used on the authoritarian mainland.
The Omicron variant ripped through mostly unvaccinated elderly victims, overwhelming hospitals that were not adequately prepared.
Despite the tough travel curbs and social distancing rules, Hong Kong had one of the world's highest per capita fatality rates, with nearly 10,000 deaths in a population of 7.4 million.
Taiwan, which said Thursday it would end quarantine rules in mid-October, has a similar number of deaths but its population is three times the size.
Hong Kong's approach stood in stark contrast to financial rivals such as London, Singapore, New York and Tokyo, which steadily reopened this year.