The border between Hong Kong and mainland China will fully reopen next week for the first time in three years, reviving the city’s role as the business gateway between the country and the rest of the world.
“From Monday, there will be full resumption of normal travel between Hong Kong and the mainland,” the city’s leader John Lee said in a press briefing Friday along with other top officials. Daily quotas and testing requirements will be dropped and all boundary checkpoints will reopen from next week, Lee said. He also announced the lifting of a ban on unvaccinated travellers from anywhere in the world.
The removal of restrictions is a dramatic reversal for a city which isolated itself for most of the pandemic, and comes a day after Lee unveiled a publicity campaign to revive the economy and repair the city’s damaged image. To bring in much-needed visitors, Hong Kong will give away more than 500,000 air tickets this year. Life in the city has effectively returned to normal, with only the mandatory wearing of masks a reminder of the Covid Zero era.
China reopened its border with Hong Kong in early January in a limited manner. The lengthy closure had a devastating impact on the city’s economy and businesses, with gross domestic product shrinking 3.5% last year, its third contraction in four years. The economy lost US$27 billion ($35.28 billion) in potential growth over the course of the pandemic, Natixis SA estimates.
Mainland China is retaining a 48-hour pre-arrival PCR test requirement for people coming from Hong Kong or Macau if they have travelled overseas in the previous seven days, according to a Friday statement by the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council. The statement didn’t specify when the test requirement will be scrapped for international visitors. Group tours in the two cities will also resume.
Lee has prioritized returning Hong Kong to normal life and regaining its status as an international finance hub since he became the leader in July. Hong Kong’s reputation as an attractive place to do business and visit was tarnished under his predecessor Carrie Lam after widespread protests in 2019, the imposition of tough security laws in 2020 and almost three years of extreme Covid restrictions. Lee, a former policeman, served in Lam’s administration and ran unopposed for the leadership role.
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Money has been flowing back into Hong Kong as investors bet on a recovery in China and the city after the nation’s pivot away from Covid Zero. The benchmark Hang Seng Index has surged almost 50% since the end of October, with US$1.6 trillion added to the value of the local stock market. That came after the equity gauge plunged to a 13-year low in October. The economy is projected to expand about 2.8%, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey.
Lee this week dismissed calls for an independent commission to look into the city’s handling of the Covid pandemic. The city was forced to turn to the central government for help early last year when the rapid spread of omicron caused a wave of deaths among unvaccinated elderly, resulting in one of the deadliest outbreaks globally.
Hong Kong has a long way to go to get back to pre-pandemic levels of visitors. The city saw some 605,000 arrivals last year as the city slowly dropped its Covid restrictions, up from 91,000 in 2021, according to the local tourism board. That compares with almost 56 million in 2019. The air tickets will be distributed through Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., its budget carrier HK Express as well as Hong Kong Airlines International Holdings Ltd., starting from March 1.
Lee will lead a trade trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Saturday as part of a push to strengthen business ties with Middle Eastern countries. He said this week he hopes to remove the mask mandate when the winter surge is over, without being more specific.