City leader John Lee unveiled the giveaway on Thursday during the launch of the “Hello Hong Kong” tourism campaign, a splashy event featuring dancers dressed as flight crew and chefs. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is probably the world’s greatest welcome ever,” Lee said on stage.
The mass ticketing will open to residents of Southeast Asia on March 1. It will expand to mainland China in April and then to Northeast Asia and the rest of the world in May. Travelers can apply through the online channels of three participating Hong Kong airlines: Cathay Pacific, HK Express and Hong Kong Airlines.
The campaign video features Canto pop stars Aaron Kwok, Kelly Chen and Sammi Cheng visiting new attractions that have opened during the pandemic, such as the M+ and Hong Kong Palace museums – big-budget government projects that haven’t attracted the usual number of foreign tourists .
Hong Kong was a global tourist attraction in its heyday, before it was hit by a double whammy of political protests and the covid pandemic. In 2018, visitor numbers reached a record high of 65.1 million.
That figure fell to 55.9 million in 2019, when mass demonstrations resulted in violent clashes and a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, which Lee oversaw as the then security chief.
In 2020, when Hong Kong closed its borders to foreign visitors and imposed strict quarantine rules due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of tourists fell to 3.5 million. Then they plummeted by 97 percent to less than 100,000 by 2021, as the city resorted to covid measures such as mass quarantine camps. Although visitor numbers bounced back to over 600,000 in 2022, they are still less than a tenth of what they were in 2018.
The Hong Kong Airport Authority will cover the cost of economy class airline tickets, although winners will be required to pay taxes and other fees. The effort is part of a 2 billion Hong Kong dollar, or $250 million, covid relief package announced in 2020.
Hong Kong’s economy contracted for the fourth consecutive quarter, falling 4.2 percent year-on-year, according to preliminary data released this week.
Gary Ng, an economist at Natixis, said over the phone that the direction of the initiative was a “good start,” but that long-term efforts to rejuvenate the economy depend on whether Hong Kong is attractive enough for holidaymakers to visit.
Dane Cheng, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, said at a news conference that “we need to make it clear that we are now fully, fully and unconditionally reopening to our travelers.”
However, Hong Kong still has cumbersome requirements for foreign visitors to show proof of vaccination and recent negative coronavirus tests before entering. Masking is still mandatory in all public areas, both indoors and outdoors.
Theodora Yu contributed reporting from Hong Kong.