Hong Kong is opening up to tourism, but is it too late?

(CNN) – Market seller Mr. Chan gestures down what used to be one of Hong Kong’s busiest streets.

“Now there are no tourists, whatever,” he says. Mr. Chan sells silver earrings, necklaces and scarves on Tung Choi Street in Kowloon, famous for its robust night market.

The last three years have been hard on him. He kept his stall open until 10:00 p.m. before the pandemic, but these days it closes at 7:00 p.m.

He expects rapid change with the end of the quarantine, which had a devastating effect on businesses that depended on tourism.

Hong Kong has taken steps in recent days to reopen to the world, first lifting its mandatory three-day hotel quarantine and then announcing a global banking summit in November.

The city also plans to give away 500 billion airline tickets, worth about $254.8 million, to global visitors, along with residents, as part of a “market recovery campaign.”

Officials hope the moves will revive Hong Kong’s status as a hub for international business and travel, but some locals believe the changes may be too late.

Mr.  Chan at her stall at the Hong Kong Women's Market.

Mr. Chan at her stall at the Hong Kong Women’s Market.

Jan Camenzind-Broomsby/CNN

A long winter

The lifting of the quarantine was greeted with excitement by the city’s residents, who have endured more than two years of overwhelming pandemic measures.

At its strictest, Hong Kong’s quarantine rules required incoming travelers to spend 21 days in a hotel room at their own expense. Only Hong Kong residents were allowed entry.

Those unlucky enough to come from certain regions or countries with high numbers of coronavirus cases could find themselves in a government facility.

As a result, travel in and out of the financial center was at an all-time low.

Once the news of the end of the quarantine was announced on Friday, September 30, travel-hungry Hong Kongers flocked to book flights online. The city’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, set up a virtual “waiting room” to access its website, where wait times can easily reach 30 minutes.

Online travel booking service Expedia said its website also saw a 9-fold increase in searches for flights from Hong Kong to Tokyo and 11 times for flights from Hong Kong to Osaka.

However, interest in flights to Hong Kong remained unchanged, said Lavinia Rajaram, Expedia’s head of public relations in Asia.

The once-thriving Mido Cafe closed in 2022 after foot traffic ground to a halt.

The once-thriving Mido Cafe closed in 2022 after foot traffic ground to a halt.

Jan Camenzind-Broomsby/CNN

An uneven success

While the hotel quarantine may be gone, the city still imposes a 3-day period during which visitors are prohibited from dining in restaurants or going to bars. This and the complicated visit requirements, which include a pre-flight vaccination certificate and negative tests, can deter potential visitors.

In November, Hong Kong plans to host the international Rugby Sevens tournament, which has been held every year since 1976, except for the last two years. A popular show that attracted fans from abroad before the pandemic, it is doubtful how many will be added to the border restrictions.

While drinking is permitted, food will be prohibited at the event. Fans will also have to wear their mask at all times except when drinking, according to the city government.

Hong Kong’s Asian neighbors, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, took steps in recent weeks to remove the last remaining barriers to travel, making them more attractive destinations for international travelers.

Another cloud hanging over the forecast is the continuation of the zero-Covid regime in mainland China. In 2019, the last year before travel was heavily restricted, 78% of visitors to the city came from the mainland.

Too late for some

The government’s effort to reopen and promote the city came too late for Maxence Traverse, a restaurant owner who had to close his business, Honi Honi Tiki Bar, last year.

He says the nine-year-old bar couldn’t survive the 2019 protests and the pandemic. After a six-month hiatus, he opened a restaurant in the city’s Tai Hang district, but is struggling to maintain it, he said.

The Traverse business is one of many in the food and beverage industry that closed permanently during the pandemic. Some of the city’s iconic Cantonese restaurants, including Mido Cafe, Jimmy’s Kitchen and Lin Heung Tea House, have also closed their doors.

Traverse was very upset when he saw an interview with Hong Kong Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau in which Lo said Hong Kong will continue to open up unless a new variant of Covid emerges.

“I cried. Depression. So hard, this feeling so hard. I said, ‘No more.'” Almost the third year in a row. You know, it’s been tough,” Traverse said.

He believes that simply reopening the city will not be enough to restore what attracted him 12 years ago.

“We have to be giving hope to Hong Kong, because we’ve lost so much right now,” he said.

CNN’s Jan Camenzind Broomby and Jadyn Sham contributed to the report.

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