Hong Kong gives away half a million free flights to lure back tourists

Hong Kong - Getty Images
Hong Kong - Getty Images

Hong Kong announced that it was giving away half a million free flights in what it described as the “world’s biggest welcome ever” following three years of draconian Covid restrictions that have dented its reputation as a global travel hub.

The £200 million “Hello Hong Kong” campaign is designed to entice back visitors to experience the city’s “hustle and bustle”.

There will be “no isolation, no quarantine and no restrictions”, city leader John Lee promised at the launch event against a backdrop of dancers, flashing neon lights and slogans in various languages including Russian and Spanish.

“This is the perfect timing for tourists, business travellers, and investors from near and far to come and say, 'Hello, Hong Kong',’” he added.

"This, ladies and gentlemen, is probably the world's biggest welcome ever.”

The flight promotion will open in March with flights distributed via promotions and lucky draws run by local airlines Cathay Pacific, HK Express and Hong Kong Airlines. Another 80,000 tickets will be offered to residents in the summer, with the carriers yet to announce destinations.

An additional 80,000 air tickets will be given away to Hong Kong residents in the summer - Fraser Hall/Getty Images
An additional 80,000 air tickets will be given away to Hong Kong residents in the summer - Fraser Hall/Getty Images

The authorities hope to revive the fortunes of the former British colony by telling “good stories” about “business opportunities, cultural attractions and tourism experiences” after a long string of damaging headlines that began with the harsh crackdown on pro-democracy rallies in 2019.

The introduction of a national security law in 2020, which carries heavy jail sentences for opposing Beijing’s rule, led to a mass exodus of Hong Kong’s own citizens and professional talent.

This week, it emerged that some 144,500 people have left Hong Kong and moved to the UK in the two years since London launched an emigration scheme for holders of British National (Overseas) passports – a policy that Robert Jenrick, the home minister, said allowed Hongkongers to “enjoy all the freedoms that we enjoy here.”

The city’s woes were compounded by cutting itself off during much of the last three years as it imposed some of the strictest Covid curbs in the world, including quarantine of up to three weeks and mandatory stints in government isolation facilities.

Mask wearing remains compulsory

The severe zero-Covid policy kept the city largely virus-free until a deadly Omicron outbreak at the start of 2022. But it also saw more than 130 international companies shutter their offices, the workforce shrink amid fears of a brain drain and the economy contract by 3.5 percent.

Hong Kong, along with mainland China, did not reopen its borders until January this year, making it one of the last pandemic holdouts besides North Korea.

Mask wearing remains compulsory except during exercise, along with daily rapid antigen testing for students.

At the launch event, Mr Lee said Hong Kong would host sports and cultural events and highlight attractions such as the Palace Museum and M+ museum, as well as a revamped Peak Tram with special vouchers.

Upcoming events include the Clockenflap music festival, Hong Kong marathon and the Rugby Sevens tournament.

"We have to let outsiders know that Hong Kong has a unique status, especially when the ‘one country, two systems’ principles will be implemented in Hong Kong for a long time," he added.

Mr Lee, a former security chief, is currently under US sanctions over his role in snuffing out 2019's anti-government protests.

The top US diplomat in Hong Kong, Greg May, said last week that the city's reputation as a financial centre will hinge on its ability to uphold human rights.

"Our view continues to be that Beijing's actions could further force many of the city's best and brightest to flee," he said.