Axing travel curbs only way to bring tour groups back to Hong Kong: sector leader

Travel agencies will continue to close down unless city adopts ‘0+0’ model, Gianna Hsu warns.

Ending all Covid-19 restrictions on arrivals is the only way to bring more travel groups to Hong Kong, an industry leader has said, warning the latest round of easing was not enough to throw the sector and other supporting businesses a lifeline.

Gianna Hsu Wong Mei-lun, chairwoman of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, joined other prominent business veterans on Saturday in stepping up pressure on the government to relax additional travel curbs ahead of coming major events as the city’s daily number of cases hovered around 5,000.

“If ‘0+0’ is delayed again and not fully started as soon as possible, I believe there will continue to be travel agencies that close down,” she said in a televised interview, referring to the possible next step for the city’s pandemic control regime. Authorities currently require arrivals to undergo three days of medical surveillance while restricting their movements citywide.

The city recorded 249,699 visitors between January and September.

The local tourist market has evaporated in the wake of the tough travel curbs, falling from 65.1 million visitors in 2018 to just 91,398 last year. But as authorities have gradually eased measures, the numbers have started to bounce back, and the city recorded 249,699 visitors between January and September.

But the changes came too late for some – Hong Thai Travel Services, one of the city’s oldest and largest travel agencies, announced two weeks ago it was shutting down due to a loss of revenue.

Earlier this week, the government revealed that group tour visitors would be able to enter designated attractions including restaurants, theme parks and museums while undergoing their three-day medical surveillance.

Travellers are issued an amber health code during the period and barred from entering venues that require vaccine checks, such as eateries and nightlife spots, but can enter shopping malls, department stores and supermarkets, as well as attend work and school.

Hsu revealed that a tour group from Thailand would arrive Sunday next week and benefit from the coming relaxation. But the industry was still discussing the practical arrangements of the eased regime with the government, according to the council leader.

She said authorities required members of tour groups to be separated from other patrons in restaurants and using plastic boards as partitions would not suffice.

Scrapping all restrictions was desperately needed to drive the sector’s recovery, she argued, while also calling on the government to extend an incentive scheme for travel agencies on an annual basis.

Health authorities on Saturday logged 5,723 coronavirus infections, 392 of which were imported, and six more related deaths. The city’s tally stands at 1,979,629 cases and 10,517 related fatalities.

Tourism sector lawmaker Perry Yiu Pak-leung said he did not expect an immediate surge in the number of inbound tours after the relaxed measures took effect. But he would be happy if the new approach attracted just 2 to 3 per cent of the roughly 9 million overseas visitors recorded in 2018, he said.

“Everyone expects that there will not be a large number, but at least it is a start, to enable us to see some light in inbound tourism,” he said.

Yiu said the frequent Covid-19 tests were a major discouraging factor for visitors and urged authorities to further ease screening requirements.

“We can’t wait to return to normal as soon as possible,” he said.

Echoing Yiu’s view, legislator Peter Shiu Ka-fai, who represents the wholesale and retail sector, said the “0+3” arrangement was not attractive to overseas tourists, but instead would prompt residents to travel abroad and lead to a drop in local consumption.

Allen Shi Lop-tak, president of the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong, said he hoped on-site tasting would be allowed at the Hong Kong Brands and Products Expo, an annual fair to be held next month by the group.

He said the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament held last week was a good example of what could be done safely, adding that allowing on-site eating could boost the fair’s atmosphere.

Hong Kong has downgraded its full-year economic forecast from between 0.5 per cent growth and 0.5 per cent contraction to a 3.2 per cent drop. The city will be among the worst performers in the region as its neighbouring rivals have already opened up.