It's been a miserable two-and-a-half years for Hong Kong's international residents as the city languished under some of the world's most stringent Covid travel restrictions. However, light at the end of a very long tunnel is finally beginning to flicker, says Carolynne Dear.
After two-and-a-half years of heavy restrictions, arrivals into Hong Kong will no longer face a stint in hotel quarantine.
Following days of frenzied ‘will they, won’t they?’ chatter on local social media platforms, Hong Kong’s government finally announced an end to hotel quarantine on Friday (September 23).
After two-and-a-half years languishing under some of the strictest travel restrictions in the world, the city has finally opened up, albeit in a restrained fashion and with plenty of social distancing restrictions still in place. But despite this, the long-awaited ditching of hotel quarantine marks a significant moment in Hong Kong’s road to recovery from when the territory first began limiting border access in early 2020.
The loosened restrictions were announced late on Friday at a press briefing led by Hong Kong chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu. He underscored that Hong Kong’s exit from Covid restrictions would proceed in an “orderly manner” and was dependent on continued improving local infection numbers. On Friday the city recorded 5,387 new infections, down from highs of more than 10,000 earlier in the month.
“We will monitor the situation closely so that the risks can be well-controlled and things can progress in an orderly manner,” said Lee.
The new rules come into effect from 6am on Monday (September 26) and mean travellers arriving in the city will be able to head straight home, or to any hotel or accommodation, rather than having to enter hotel quarantine, currently set at three days.
Departure PCR tests were also scrapped, possibly due to it becoming increasingly difficult to locate overseas testing laboratories as the world winds down its pandemic response. Instead, travellers must take a rapid antigen test (also known as a lateral flow test), the details of which must be uploaded to Hong Kong’s online health declaration. This document must be completed by all arrivals within 24 hours of departure.
The changes are without doubt a game changer for Hong Kong residents who have laboured under entry restrictions that at one point involved a 21-day hotel quarantine (the longest on the planet), flight bans, enforced ‘wash out’ periods in ‘acceptable’ countries and miserable periods of time spent in the city’s notorious government isolation camps.
Cathay Pacific's website reportedly crashed for 15 minutes following the news as Hong Kongers, many of whom have not left the city since 2019, searched for outbound flights. Local travel agent Expedia Hong Kong said flight searches for Japan, which has also announced loosening travel restrictions, surged 966% compared with the previous 14 day average.
“Hong Kongers' interest in the resumption of overseas travel, and Asia-centric travel in particular, has been picking-up exponentially over the course of the last few months on news of gradual easing of border restrictions across the region’s markets,” said Lavinia Rajaram, Asia head of Public Relations for Expedia Group. “As hotel quarantine restrictions on entry to Hong Kong are now lifted, Expedia anticipates a rapid recovery in international travel for Hong Kong travellers.”
However, scrapping hotel quarantine alone is unlikely to revive the territory’s inbound tourist industry. Along with completing the departure test and health declaration and downloading Hong Kong’s LeaveHomeSafe contact tracing app, tortuous entry regulations include multiple Covid testing and a ban on entering ‘high risk’ venues including restaurants and bars for the first few days. Rapid antigen tests must be carried out daily until day seven in addition to PCR tests on arrival, on day two, day four and day six. From arrival to day three, travellers will be considered to be under a medical surveillance period, which means they will receive an amber QR code on their LeaveHomeSafe app, effectively banning them from undertaking mask-free activities or entering restaurants, bars, museums, swimming pools and theme parks. Day three to day four will be considered a self-monitoring period and at this time, their QR code will turn blue, allowing them to ‘access all areas’ in the city. If at any point during the first seven days they return a positive test, their QR code will turn red, meaning they must not leave their residence.
Restrictions inside the city also remain in place. Masks must be worn both indoors and outdoors (uncomfortable in a sub-tropical area of the world) and restaurant tables are restricted to no more than eight guests. People must also not gather in groups of more than four.
As the rest of the world discovered, often to its cost, tourism returns painfully slowly if there is any impediment to travel. And with most of the world now open, some countries not even requiring vaccination, it seems unlikely Hong Kong’s tourism industry will rebound any time soon in such an environment.
According to Amy Overy, founder of Hong Kong tour group Hong Kong Greeters, Hong Kong's tourism prospects remain dismal. "We have not seen any new enquiries from bona fide tourists," she told Asia Family Traveller. "Although there's no quarantine, the testing regimen is enough for tourists not to bother, especially when other Asian countries are scrapping quarantine and testing. Historically Hong Kong was perfectly set up as a place for visitors to spend one or two days before flying on to another destination. The way I'm interpreting the new changes, there's no chance for tourists to be here for a layover or overnight stay."
Overy said she'd like to see a plan for opening up, something that has not been Hong Kong government's strong point through the pandemic. "At least then the industry can look ahead and start taking confirmed bookings, instead of the continued uncertainty we have had to bear for the last three years," she said.
The litmus test for the new, looser regulations will no doubt be The Hong Kong Institute of Bankers Annual Banking Conference which begins on October 31 and has been hailed by the government as Hong Kong’s 'big bang' return to the global stage. It will swiftly be followed by the return of Hong Kong Rugby Sevens to the city in early November after a three year hiatus.
As they say, only time will tell.
Travelling to Hong Kong? Here’s what you need to know
Your flight’s booked and your bags are packed. What’s next?
*All travellers to Hong Kong must complete the city’s online Department of Health Health Declaration Form, including details of a self-supervised rapid antigen test. The test and declaration must be completed within 24 hours of departure.
Once the health declaration has been completed, travellers will be sent a digital QR code. This should be saved in an easily accessible place as it is one of the first things travellers are required to show on landing in Hong Kong.
On landing, travellers must download the city’s LeaveHomeSafe app. On arrival they will receive an amber QR code.
Non-residents over the age of 12 years must be able to show full vaccination (at least two shots of an approved vaccine). Under the new rules, residents will be allowed to enter Hong Kong unvaccinated.
A PCR test will be undertaken at the airport, but travellers are not required to wait for the results and can take any form of public or private transport to their home or hotel.
Rapid antigen tests must be taken daily from day one until day seven (the arrival day is counted as day zero).
PCR tests must be carried out on days two, four and six. These can be done at the city’s community screening centres, mobile specimen collection stations or recognised testing firms. Details can be found online.
Until 9am on day three when the LeaveHomeSafe QR code will automatically turn blue, travellers must not take-part in mask-off activities and must NOT enter venues including restaurants, bars, clubs, gyms, indoor sports premises, swimming pools, theme parks, temples or other religious buildings, cruise ships, beauty salons and spas and outdoor public entertainment venues. During this time, travellers ARE allowed to take public transport (including The Peak Tram) and access shopping areas such as wet markets and malls.
From day three to day seven, travellers are expected to check their health with a daily rapid antigen test and temperature checks twice daily. If at any time a Covid test returns a positive result, the LeaveHomeSafe QR code will turn red and travellers will not be permitted to leave their residence.
Enjoy your stay!
* The new regulations begin from 6am on Monday, September 26. Until that time, all arrivals must make their way to their pre-booked quarantine hotel. They will be permitted to leave the hotel in "an orderly manner" on Monday morning.
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