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By Kari Soo Lindberg and Alfred Liu September 7, 2021

  •  City’s leader announces new quarantine-free travel program
  •  Rekindling China travel ties may bolster Hong Kong’s economy

Hong Kong will start allowing visitors from China to skip the strict quarantine process required for most arrivals, a key first step toward reopening the border with the mainland and reviving a flow of visitors that’s long been crucial to the local economy.

The city will start a “Come2hk” travel program on Sept. 15 that will allow up to 2,000 non-Hong Kong residents per day from the mainland and Macau to visit the city, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a regular press briefing on Tuesday morning. 

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The program would mark a significant opening of Hong Kong’s pandemic era travel policies — some of the strictest in the world with mandatory hotel quarantines lasting as long as 21 days. The loosened requirements could give an added boost to the city’s economy, since mainland arrivals have long accounted for the majority of tourists and visitors to Hong Kong.

Jewelry firms rallied on the news. Chow Sang Sang Holdings International Ltd rose 5.5%, Sa Sa International Holdings Ltd gained 9.9% and Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group increased 2.4%. 

“The move may presage looser restrictions that would benefit AIA, Prudential and China Taiping. Sales to mainland clients collapsed to 11 policies a day in 1H21 in Hong Kong, against 1,187 a day in 1H19.” 

— Steven Lam, BI Asia Insurance analyst 

Lam said the government will issue a press release with details of the program, including a requirement for regular testing. The program isn’t reciprocal, as travelers from Hong Kong to the mainland are still required to go through quarantine. 

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Hong Kong also will resume its “Return2hk” program on Wednesday, Lam said, allowing Hong Kong residents from China to return without quarantine. The program, which was previously open to those from the neighboring province of Guangdong, will now apply to all mainland cities except those considered medium- or high-risk. 

Strict Curbs

Throughout the pandemic, Hong Kong has kept Covid-19 cases and deaths low with a mix of strict requirements for returning residents, bans on leisure travelers and extensive local testing and contact tracing programs. It only recently began allowing in non-residents from some countries, provided they were vaccinated and went through quarantine. 

But the city has lagged other finance hubs such as New York and London in trying to get life back to normal. Hong Kong backtracked after just a few days on a highly-anticipated loosening of quarantine requirements in August because of the worsening regional Covid-19 situation. The city’s last local infection was Aug. 17, Lam said on Tuesday. 

Officials have indicated that reopening the border with China — which has a strict zero-tolerance policy for Covid — is the priority over increasing travel with the rest of the world.

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The continuation of travel curbs, despite the relatively safe situation within Hong Kong, have prompted rising frustration, with the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong warning that the city had no exit plan from a “Covid Zero” strategy that aims to completely stamp out local cases.

“We are of the view that Hong Kong must open itself sooner rather than later or this new quarantine regime could lead many in the international community to question if they want to remain indefinitely trapped in Hong Kong when the rest of the world is moving on,” Frederik Gollob, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, wrote in an open letter to Lam in August.

— With assistance by Catherine Ngai