14.8 C
Saturday, June 3, 2023
HomeWorldHong Kong struggles to win back tourists, ‘World City’ crown

Hong Kong struggles to win back tourists, ‘World City’ crown


Hong Kong, China – Early last year, as the number of COVID cases in Hong Kong skyrocketed and the government closed schools and speculated about mass testing of its residents, David Bruce had seen enough. It was time to leave town.

Hong Kong was in the throes of the “fifth wave” of the pandemic, sending patients who tested positive to a quarantine center for up to 21 days.

“That was the tipping point,” Bruce, 65, a businessman and resident of Scotland who has lived in Hong Kong for 35 years, told Al Jazeera.

He was concerned that the city’s strict measures might prevent his 18-year-old son from leaving to start a summer college program in the United States.

“We had to fly him out of Hong Kong as soon as possible,” he said.

Bruce joined his son several weeks later and ended up staying away from Hong Kong for nearly three months.

Like Bruce, thousands of other Hong Kong residents left the semi-autonomous Chinese territory during the height of the pandemic — some temporarily, others permanently — as the government’s harsh restrictions took their toll on both expatriates and locals moving abroad. could move.

Last year, the city’s population fell for a third consecutive year — by 0.9 percent to 7.3 million — as tens of thousands of residents left for good. In addition to frustration over pandemic measures, many residents were driven to leave by a sweeping national security law introduced following pro-democracy protests in 2019 that often turned violent.

Hong Kong’s population to decline for third consecutive year in 2022 (Edmond Ng/Al Jazeera)

Hong Kong officials have openly expressed concern about the brain drain from the city, which has been known for decades as one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan urban centers. Meanwhile, foreign visitors were mostly denied entry to Hong Kong during the pandemic.

Now the city, long marketed as “Asia’s World City,” is doing everything it can to lure back businessmen and tourists after being largely cut off from the world for nearly three years.

In February, the government unveiled a giveaway for half a million airline tickets to attract visitors. Earlier this month, authorities lifted the latest pandemic restrictions: mandatory face masks, which posed a hurdle for many would-be travelers, even though airlines began ramping up flights into the city late last year.

The question now: are they coming?

Hong Kong remains a popular tourist destination and pent-up demand could lead to an influx of visitors. On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, busloads of tourists flocked from mainland China to Hong Kong’s harbor parks and cultural districts.

Still, arrivals are a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. While January visitor numbers hit a nearly three-year high of about 500,000, the most recently available figures, the city welcomed about 6.8 million visitors in January 2019.

The Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, traditionally hosting some of the city’s largest trade fairs, has been virtually empty in recent years.

With the city reopening, the convention center was packed to capacity for a pair of jewelry and gemstone shows earlier this month for the first time since the pandemic began. In April, it will have a full lineup when it hosts nine events, including shows focused on innovation, electronics and fashion.

Hong Kong welcomed about 500,000 visitors in January, a fraction of its pre-pandemic level (Edmond Ng/Al Jazeera)

While some companies expect the city to recover quickly, others say it could take longer.

Cathay Pacific Airways, the city’s main carrier, has seen flights drop to just a handful a week during the height of the pandemic. On a single day in March last year, it carried just 58 passengers – a low for an airline with a once-thriving global network that carried tens of thousands of people a day.

Cathay is currently operating at 50 per cent of its pre-pandemic passenger flight capacity and predicts this will be 70 per cent by the end of this year. It is not expected to be at pre-pandemic levels until late 2024.

The airline said this month that part of the challenge is training pilots and cabin crew, many of whom have left the airline in the past three years. It will also take time to get long-parked jets back into service.

British Airways is doubling its weekly flights between Hong Kong and London from seven to 14 this month, while United Airlines resumed its first passenger flight from the city to San Francisco since the start of the pandemic.

Three major events kicking off by the end of this month will be another test of the city’s recovery: Art Basel Hong Kong, the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament – ​​all traditionally hosting thousands of attract foreign visitors, but to cancel events of the past three years.

“The visual arts community in Hong Kong is extremely excited about the upcoming Art Basel show in Hong Kong,” Angelle Siyang-Le, the director of Art Basel Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera. In 2019, Art Basel Hong Kong had a record attendance of 88,000 visitors.

She added that the fair is working closely with the art sector to welcome an international audience back to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has had a reputation for decades as one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities (Edmond Ng/Al Jazeera)

Meanwhile, the film festival – one of the oldest in Asia – and its programs are expected to attract filmmakers and film industry executives from across Asia and around the world. It canceled its program in 2020 as COVID started spreading around the world. And while the festival took place for the next two years, mostly for local audiences, it still faced challenges.

Albert Lee, the executive director of HKIFF, said things will not return to normal overnight. “It will take time,” Lee told Al Jazeera, “but there is definitely a hunger for film.”

The Rugby Sevens, normally held in the spring, held their first tournament since the start of the pandemic last November, while social distancing and other rules were still in place. The organizers of the event, known as much for its non-stop partying as for the sport itself, have pledged to “rock the city” for the first time in four years.

For Bruce, the businessman, it was the celebrated efficiency of Hong Kong’s service industry that brought him back.

After spending a few months in the US, UK and elsewhere last year, travel-related headaches — including flight cancellations and lost luggage — began to take their toll.

“Everything broke,” he said.

Even the prospect of a seven-day quarantine upon arrival wasn’t enough to deter Bruce from returning.

“I’m going back to Hong Kong, where everything works,” he told himself.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

Latest stories