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    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    Hong Kong offers 500,000 free plane tickets to lure tourists back after COVID pandemic

    The Hong Kong government is offering 500,000 free airplane tickets to visitors willing to travel to the city, in an effort to reverse four years of plummeting tourism numbers and to revive the economy. Hong Kong also announced on Friday that it would fully open its border with mainland China this Monday.

    The city's leader, John Lee, unveiled the ticket giveaway on Thursday during the launch of the "Hello Hong Kong" tourism campaign, a splashy event featuring dancers dressed as aircrew and chefs. "This, ladies and gentlemen, is probably the world's biggest welcome ever," Lee said onstage.

    The mass ticket handout will open to Southeast Asia residents on March 1. It will expand to mainland China in April, and then northeast Asia and the rest of the world in May. Travelers can apply via 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 opened during the pandemic, like the M+ and Hong Kong Palace museums — big budget government projects that have not drawn the usual number of foreign tourists.

    Hong Kong was a global tourism draw in its heyday, before it was hit by a double whammy of political protests and the COVID pandemic. In 2018, its visitor numbers reached a record-high 65.1 million.

    That figure dropped 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, tourist arrivals dropped to 3.5 million. They then plummeted by 97 percent to less than 100,000 in 2021, as the city resorted to covid measures like mass quarantine camps. While visitors figures rebounded to more than 600,000 in 2022, they are still less than one-tenth of what they were in 2018.

    The Hong Kong Airport Authority will cover the cost of economy-class airfare, although winners will have to pay taxes and other fees. The effort is part of a 2 billion Hong Kong dollars, or $250 million, COVID relief package announced in 2020.

    Hong Kong's economy shrank for the fourth consecutive quarter and is down 4.2 percent year-on-year, according to advance figures published this week.

    Gary Ng, an economist at Natixis, said by telephone that the direction of the initiative was a "good start," but that long-term efforts to rejuvenate the economy would depend on whether Hong Kong was attractive enough for leisure travelers to visit.

    Dane Cheng, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, said in a news conference that "we need to make it clear that we are now totally, fully, unconditionally reopening to our travellers."

    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 mandated in all public areas, indoors and outdoors.

    The Washington Post's Theodora Yu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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