As mainland China prepares to lift COVID-19 travel restrictions starting Jan. 8, Hong Kong, one of the most popular destinations for Chinese tourists, is eagerly awaiting and apprehensively bracing for an influx of visitors.
Of the 154 million Chinese outbound travelers in 2019 before COVID-19 struck, more than one-third — 36% — came to Hong Kong, according to World Bank and Hong Kong Tourism Board statistics. The special administrative region is a favorite travel destination because of its proximity, popular Cantonese cuisine and abundant shopping.
"There will be a lot more mainland people coming to Hong Kong. Some of them will be coming for family unification; they were forced apart by the past three years of epidemic-prevention restrictions. Others will be coming here for tourism," said Cloris Yip, a Hong Kong-based travel agent. "It will be good for Hong Kong. The past three years have been very hard for Hong Kong's travel industry."
Chinese authorities announced Monday that the country will no longer require quarantine for inbound travelers starting January 8 and that it will begin accepting applications from Chinese citizens for passports to travel overseas and permits to travel to Hong Kong and Macau. On Tuesday, Chief Executive John Lee announced that Hong Kong will finally fully open its doors starting Wednesday, ending some of the world's toughest COVID-19 measures.
Lee said Hong Kong will cancel mandatory PCR tests for arriving travelers, the Vaccine Pass scheme, quarantine requirements for close contacts, and social distancing measures.
"Visitors coming from overseas, the mainland, Macau and Taiwan will no longer have to do mandatory PCR tests when they arrive in Hong Kong," Lee said.
The government had already canceled quarantine requirements for arrivals in late September. The only measure remaining is the mask mandate.
This move is expected to bring back much-needed Chinese tourism starting next month during the Lunar New Year holiday.
Before the pandemic, tourism made up 4.5% of Hong Kong's GDP and employed around 257,000 people, accounting for about 6.6% of total employment, according to government figures. In 2018, of the 65 million tourists visiting Hong Kong, 78% — 51 million — were mainlanders.
"The travel industry is very excited about this long-awaited news," the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong said in a statement. "The new measures can restore exchanges between Hong Kong and other places in an orderly manner, so that different stakeholders in industries such as travel agencies, hotels, cross-border buses or airlines can see the light of day after years of difficulties, and the tourism industry, which has been hit by the epidemic for three years, can move towards a real recovery."
Without Chinese tourism, businesses have gone bankrupt or downsized. To make a living, Yip and other travel agents had to take less lucrative jobs provided by the government, such as checking IDs and keeping order in vaccination centers.
"Many travel agencies are no longer in operation. Some people changed careers. COVID caused the whole travel industry to be very depressed," Yip said.
That's why many travel agencies, hotels, retailers and others will welcome mainlanders like Elaine Zhao and her boyfriend, who plan to visit Hong Kong in January now that they are allowed to leave the mainland and won't have to waste time and money quarantining upon their return.
The college sophomore in northeastern China's Shenyang city has spent the past year and a half on a locked-down campus. Because of one positive case, she was confined for two weeks in November to the dormitory room she shared with three roommates.
"We felt very claustrophobic. All we could do was stay in the room. The only other place we could go to was the toilet. We couldn't even take showers," Zhao said.
Used to going abroad once or twice a year, she is excited to finally travel again.
"We've been stuck here for the past three years, and it's been a long time since we've gone out to play," Zhao said. "I really want to go to Macau. I've never been there before. Then I will go to Hong Kong. It's a place a lot of young people want to visit because it has an image of being very prosperous, and it's different from the mainland."
She and her boyfriend expect long lines when they apply for visit permits.
"Many people got positive in Shenyang, but they got better in a week to two weeks. It's like the flu. No one is afraid anymore. Everyone wants to go out," she said.
Mainland students studying in Hong Kong also welcomed China's lifting of COVID-19 measures.
"I'm very happy because every time I went home, I had to spend a lot of money on quarantine hotels and PCR tests," said Eric Jiang.
The hotel he quarantined in tried to keep him and other guests longer than the mandatory five days so it could charge them more money.
"It was only after we complained to a government office that they let us leave," Jiang said. "Now that quarantine requirements have been lifted, I can easily visit my parents and grandmother."
Caution and concern
Some Hong Kong residents, however, will wait for the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland to subside before visiting. Infections have surged after China eased many COVID-19 controls on Dec. 7.
"There's no way I will go to the mainland now," said Samuel Lau, a stockbroker who used to cross the border four times a month for sightseeing and seeing his clients. "It will be one or two months before I will go."
Lau, however, looks forward to visiting the mainland again.
"I like to go there because it's developing so fast. It's useless to just hear people talk about the changes in China. I like to see for myself the infrastructure and the cities' development from living in poverty to becoming prosperous. I want to understand how they were able to do what many countries couldn't do," Lau said.
He also wants to use an app on his smartphone to rent an electric car right off the street.
There are concerns, however, that with Chinese tourists flocking back to Hong Kong, COVID-19 cases will rise, placing pressure on local hospitals already stretched thin from a recent increase in COVID-19 and winter flu infections.
Others worry that mainland tourists will snap up all the medicine from drug stores and pay a lot of money to private clinics for foreign vaccines, which are unavailable to Chinese citizens on the mainland.
Hong Kong ready for business, says official
Chief Executive Lee reassured the public that Hong Kong is ready for reopening, citing its high vaccination rate, adequate supply of anti-epidemic medicine, and fully experienced medical workers. He also mentioned that 2.5 million people have already developed immunity from previous infections.
Unlike Japan, India and Taiwan, Hong Kong will not require mainland visitors to take a PRC test after arriving in the city, despite concerns about the possibility of new deadlier variants developing in China and spreading to Hong Kong.
Mainland and other inbound travelers to Hong Kong will only be required to present negative results from PCR tests taken within 48 hours or rapid antigen tests (RAT) within 24 hours before they travel to Hong Kong.
"Nothing is impossible, but it's a very, very low possibility because the virus has already mutated to a milder strain," Professor Jin Dong-Yan, a University of Hong Kong virologist, told VOA in mid-December.
Opening Hong Kong's borders makes sense for people like Yip.
Tourist arrivals dropped to just 91,000 last year. They picked up this year — to 328,000 — after Hong Kong's government shortened and later canceled quarantine for arrivals, but they're still only a fraction of what they used to be.
"Hong Kong needs to float back up. We need to get on the same track with the rest of the world," Yip said.
But the recovery of the tourism industry will be long, according to the Travel Industry Council, and it will take a long time to return to pre-pandemic levels.