Hong Kong is opening up to tourism, but is it too late?

(CNN) — Market vendor Mr Chan gestures towards what was once one of Hong Kong’s busiest streets.

“There are no more tourists now,” he said. Mr. Chan sells silver earrings, necklaces and scarves on Tung Choi Street in Kowloon, famous for its vibrant night market.

The last three years have been tough for him. He kept his stand open until 10 p.m. before the pandemic hit, but these days it closes at 7 p.m.

He hopes for rapid change with the end of the quarantine, which has had a devastating effect on businesses that depended on tourism.

Hong Kong has taken steps in recent days to reopen to the world, first lifting its mandatory three-day hotel quarantine and then announcing a global banking summit in November.

Officials hope the move will revive Hong Kong’s status as an international business and travel hub, but some locals believe the change may be too late.

Mr. Chan at his stall at the Hong Kong Ladies’ Maket.

Jan Camenzind-Broomsby/CNN

A long winter

The lifting of the quarantine was greeted with joy by the city’s residents, who have endured more than two years of crushing pandemic measures.

In their strictest form, Hong Kong’s quarantine rules required incoming travelers to spend 21 days in a hotel room paid for at their own expense. Only residents of Hong Kong were allowed to enter.

Those unlucky enough to come from certain regions or countries with high numbers of coronavirus cases might end up in a government-run facility.

As a result, travel to and from the financial center has reached record levels.

Once news of the end of the quarantine broke on Friday, September 30, travel-hungry Hong Kongers flocked to book flights online. The city’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, set up a virtual “waiting room” to access its website, where wait times could easily stretch up to 30 minutes.

Online travel booking service Expedia said its website also increased searches for flights from Hong Kong to Tokyo by 9 times and 11 times for flights from Hong Kong to Osaka.

However, interest in flights to Hong Kong remained unchanged, said Lavinia Rajaram, Expedia’s public relations manager for Asia.

The once thriving Mido Cafe closed in 2022 after foot traffic stopped.

The once thriving Mido Cafe closed in 2022 after foot traffic stopped.

Jan Camenzind-Broomsby/CNN

An uneven success

Although the quarantine in hotels has disappeared, the city still imposes a 3-day period during which visitors are prohibited from dining in restaurants or going to bars. That and the complicated visit requirements, which include a pre-flight vaccination certificate and negative tests, may deter potential visitors.

In November, Hong Kong plans to host the international rugby 7s tournament, which has been held every year since 1976 except for the past two years. A popular show that drew fans from abroad before the pandemic, one wonders how many will brave border restrictions.

Although drinking is permitted, food will be prohibited during the event. Fans will also be required to wear their masks at all times except when drinking, according to the city government.

Hong Kong’s Asian neighbors, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, have taken steps in recent weeks to remove remaining travel barriers, making them more attractive destinations for international travelers.

Another cloud hovering over the forecast is the continuation of the zero-Covid regime in mainland China. In 2019, the last year before travel became heavily restricted, 78% of visitors to the city came from the mainland.

Too late for some

The government’s effort to reopen and promote the town came too late for Maxence Traverse, a restaurateur who had to close his business, Honi Honi Tiki Bar, last year.

He says the nine-year-old bar couldn’t survive the 2019 protests and the pandemic. After a six-month hiatus, he opened a restaurant in the city’s Tai Hang district, but he is fighting to keep it going, he said.

Traverse’s business is one of many businesses in the food and beverage industry that have closed permanently during the pandemic. Some of the city’s iconic Cantonese restaurants, including Mido Cafe, Jimmy’s Kitchen and Lin Heung Tea House, have also closed.

Traverse was very upset when he saw an interview with Hong Kong Health Secretary Lo Chung-mau in which Lo said Hong Kong would continue to open up unless a new variant of Covid erupts. emerges.

“I cried. Depression. Really hard, that hard feeling. I said, ‘Not yet.’ Almost third year in a row. You know, it’s been tough,” Traverse said.

He thinks just reopening the city won’t be enough to restore what appealed to him 12 years ago.

“We have to create excitement for Hong Kong because right now we have lost so much,” he said.

CNN’s Jan Camenzind Broomby and Jadyn Sham contributed reporting.

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