Hong Kong will ditch its stringent hotel quarantine for incoming travellers that has eroded the city’s status as a financial hub, hammered its economy and sparked an exodus of residents.
The policy, which at one point required visitors and residents to quarantine in a hotel for as long as three weeks, had been in place for 2.5 years, effectively cutting the city off from the rest of the world as well as from mainland China.
John Lee, the city’s chief executive, said that quarantine would be eliminated from Monday, but travellers would be subject to testing and monitoring for three days after landing.
“We must allow the maximum room to allow connectivity with the world so that we can have economic momentum, and to reduce inconvenience to arriving travellers,” Lee said on Friday.
Hong Kong had been forced to practise a version of Beijing’s stifling zero-Covid-19 policy, although it has escaped the strict lockdowns that have paralysed Chinese megacities.
But after a devastating wave of the Omicron variant that ripped through the city and a change of leadership, authorities have slowly loosened restrictions. Currently, travellers have to stay in a hotel for three days.
Friday’s announcement followed intense lobbying from both the international and local business community.
“Business is suffering tremendously because of the inability to travel,” said a senior executive at a Hong Kong-listed developer. “The overall economic sentiment is very bad and needs a major revival.”
The policy change also precedes a big financial forum and the return of the Rugby Sevens tournament in early November. City leaders hope the events will attract business back to the Chinese territory.
Beijing appeared to offer Hong Kong authorities approval to relax border measures on Tuesday. Huang Liuquan, the Deputy Head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, said it would be “understandable” if officials eased the restrictions.
Travellers will no longer have to take a PCR test 48 hours before arriving in Hong Kong, and will be able to self monitor either in a hotel or at home. But they will still be banned from entering restaurants and bars during that period.
Despite the change, the additional checks on arrivals and three days of monitoring might still slow the return of tourists and businesspeople.
An investment banker who left Hong Kong temporarily for Germany before returning in August said the new arrangement, which is now known as “zero plus three”, was “still not attractive for people who don’t live here”.
“[The] problem is still China. So much business in Hong Kong is to do with China,” he said.
This month, Chinese officials agreed to allow travellers to undergo mandatory isolation in Hong Kong quarantine facilities before heading to the mainland. But further measures to facilitate travel across the border are yet to be announced.
Hong Kong was forced last month to slash its growth forecast for 2022 to between minus 0.5 per cent and 0.5 per cent after gross domestic product contracted 3.9 and 1.4 per cent, respectively in the first and second quarters.
The city has recorded a total of 1.7mn cases and 9,900 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
Its Covid curbs have bolstered Singapore’s position as a regional hub, as big corporations and financial firms moved staff and operations from Hong Kong to the city-state.
Many Hong Kong residents were also spooked by the imposition of a sweeping national security law by Beijing in 2020 that clamped down on civil society. The city of 7.3mn has suffered a net loss of more than 120,000 residents this year.