By Simone McCarthy
The Hong Kong government has announced the ending of formal quarantine for international travelers after more than two and a half years of stringent pandemic controls.
Under new rules that will take effect from September 26, incoming travelers will be required to undergo three days of monitoring on arrival.
The Hong Kong government has faced considerable pressure from its business community and some public health officials to loosen restrictions amid a faltering economy, an outflow of foreigners and concerns that the financial hub, once known as “Asia’s World City,” was being left behind as the rest of the world moved on from the pandemic.
Questions about when the city would loosen restrictions have grown more pointed as two major international events, the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament and a global banking conference, were slated for November and seen as a way to revive the beleaguered city, which has been rocked in recent years by pro-democracy protests and an ensuing crackdown on civil liberties by Beijing.
While various governments brought in border controls following the outbreak of the pandemic, most have since rolled back the measures, including Singapore, which typically vies with Hong Kong to attract foreign business and talent.
But unlike other global hubs, Hong Kong’s Covid-19 policies have long been seen as closely tied to mainland China, where Beijing continues to maintain a stringent zero-Covid policy and border quarantines, with no sign of easing as stamping out infection remains a top priority.
Calls for the international border controls to be loosened under the leadership of Lee’s predecessor Carrie Lam, who left office June 30, were stymied by a competing demand to open quarantine-free travel to the mainland — a proposition that has yet gone unfulfilled.
A public signal of Beijing’s support for Hong Kong’s new policy route came on September 20, when the deputy head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Huang Liuquan said the Hong Kong government had been coordinating its policies in line with its local situation and adjustments did not need to be “overinterpreted.”
While the new policy for international arrivals in Hong Kong may not be a harbinger of imminent change in mainland policy, it is a mark of divergent situations on each side of the border.
Though the city kept local cases to a minimum for the first two years of the pandemic, Hong Kong experienced an explosive outbreak of the highly infectious Omicron variant earlier this year and has not revived a zero-Covid stance since. Instead, the city has continued to clock between hundreds and thousands of daily cases. Officials records show over 1.7 million cases have been reported in the city of 7.4 million, though experts believe the real number is higher.
In mainland China, in contrast, the vast majority of the country has yet to be exposed to the virus — placing its population at a deficit when it comes to natural immunity from infection, a concern for health officials there who fear the strain of a widescale outbreak on the health care system.
Hong Kong’s new measures comes more than 900 days after the city first enacted border restrictions in March 2020 and nearly two years after it mandated hotel quarantine for all international arrivals in December 2020. At its longest, the quarantine period stretched to 21 days. Travelers who tested positive during quarantine were moved to designated facilities, including, at times, government-run camps.
The program became increasingly controversial among the public after Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, local case numbers rose and places with similar systems like New Zealand and Australia opened their borders.
This summer a dearth of available hotel rooms and limited flights raised public anger as travelers risked being trapped outside the city until a free room opened up if their itinerary was disrupted, for example by catching Covid-19 or having a flight rescheduled.
Certain restrictions have been eased in recent months. In May non-Hong Kong residents were permitted to enter the city from overseas for the first time in more than two years, while a scheme that saw some flights with Covid-positive passengers suspended was scrapped in July.
Earlier this summer, Lee’s administration reduced quarantine from one week to three days, plus an additional four days of health monitoring, during which arrivals are not allowed to go to places including bars, gyms and restaurants.
But hotel quarantine and pre-flight testing requirements had been seen as a remaining significant hurdle to travel into the city, and questions remain over what role the new plan will play in reviving the city’s once vibrant tourism industry.
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