A first-hand report from our Managing Partner Stefan Schmierer.
For as long as we could recall, Hong Kong was once known as an international financial centre with people from all over the world, be it for business or leisure. Businessmen from Mainland China met their Western counterparts to negotiate and discuss transactions, tourists from Mainland China came for shopping sprees, and tourists from Western countries, such as the US and Europe, came for sightseeing. Hong Kong was deemed as a hub to further explore China and its neighbouring Asian countries.
This all changed in 2019. Since the outbreak of protests and the spread of violence across the city, the world’s impression of Hong Kong altered. This was intensified by the implemented National Security Laws increased restrictions policy by Mainland China.
''Hong Kong has almost evaporated from the radar of international travelers and airlines.''
What further contributed to Hong Kong’s decline was the outbreak of Covid-19 at the beginning of 2020, which caused the Hong Kong government to implement one of the world’s strictest quarantine rules and travel restrictions, which often lack scientific basis, reasonableness and public support.
Since then, Hong Kong has almost evaporated from the radar of international travelers and airlines. Only Hong Kong residents were allowed to enter the borders, and required to undergo a quarantine of up to 21 days, making traveling to and from Hong Kong rather undesirable but for emergency situations.
Lonely passenger at the almost empty Hong Kong airport.
It is undeniable that the strict restrictions in place had kept Hong Kong more or less Covid-free for a period of time before the fifth wave hit in early 2022, but the same came with an enormous cost suffered by the community, from both an economic, mental and psychological point of view.
In February 2022, the Hong Kong government seemingly learned the lesson which most other governments (save for Mainland China) already learned some months prior from their first-hand experience, being that it is impossible to keep Omicron at bay forever, and that it is inevitable that we must learn to cope and “live” with the virus.
Hong Kong was hit by an Omicron wave that led to the highest Covid mortality amongst developed countries, with more than 50,000 confirmed cases daily at its peak (with a population of just 7 million). Once all citizens were either vaccinated or infected, or both, the infections reduced, and the Hong Kong government decided to slightly relax the travel restrictions with effect from May 2022. Non-residents were allowed to enter the city again, and the mandatory hotel quarantine was reduced to seven days.
''The return remained a major operation and required careful planning, which began already several weeks before the actual trip. ''
I therefore took this chance in early May to travel from Hong Kong to Hua Hin, Thailand, for the first time in over 2 years. Whilst the journey out of Hong Kong was relatively hassle-free (despite finding the emptiness of the airport quite depressing), the return remained a major operation and required careful planning, which began already several weeks before the actual trip.
The beach in Hua Hin, Thailand.
A traveler is required to secure a stay at one of the designated quarantine hotels, and the question arises as to whether the flight or the accommodation should be booked first, since both need to correlate, which feels like the question between the chicken and the egg. However, given the variation in availability of the hotels and the needs for each traveler, it appears more sensible to secure the hotel first and then book the flight thereafter.
Further, a traveler to Hong Kong needs to fill in a health declaration online before coming to Hong Kong, which produces a QR code, which must then be presented to the authorities when entering Hong Kong.
Another requirement is a PCR-Covid-test which must be taken within 48 hours before the scheduled departure flight and completed at an accredited laboratory. This causes several problems, since not all laboratories in different countries meet the Hong Kong requirements, and the 48-hour window is rather narrow. Given the fact that it may take up to 24 hours to generate the result of a PCR-test, the time for traveling to, and the arrival at the airport 3 hours before departure, can narrow down the testing-window to only a couple of hours. Since my flight was scheduled to depart at 2pm and the accredited laboratory which conducted my test two days before closed at 4pm, I had a narrow 2-hour window at which I could take the test.
''Another officer checked the information all over again [which] appeared to be rather unnecessary and led to the suspicion that this was merely a measure to reduce the local unemployment rate. ''
All my documents were carefully checked at the Bangkok airport when checking in, and 3 hours later I arrived at Hong Kong International Airport. When departing the plane, it began with an endless walk to a train, followed by a short 3-minute train ride. After arriving, every traveler received a green paper with nothing but a bar code on it. This piece of paper appeared to be highly important, so that they attach it to a badge and request the traveler to wear it around their neck. This was followed by another lengthy walk, leading to the control point where the QR code from the online health declaration was checked.
After some additional walking, the line for the Covid test began. Having been tested only 2 days ago did not hinder the authorities to conduct another Covid test upon arrival. What was more was that, there was not just one additional test but two, one PCR and one fast Rapid Antigen Test (RAT). The downside to this double testing mechanism was being poked in the nose twice, but it also allowed the traveler to head to the hotel immediately if the fast RAT result is negative, leaving the waiting time for the PCR test results (which usually takes 3 to 7 hours) to be abolished.
After the testing station, another long walk to the next line awaited. At the end of the line, an officer checked all necessary documents and issued the quarantine order. I was asked to carefully check all information on the order, and approximately 10 meters after having received the order, another officer checked the information all over again. This appeared to be rather unnecessary and led to the suspicion that this was merely a measure to reduce the local unemployment rate.
As usual, this was followed by another long walk and being greeted by another officer, checking the quarantine order and documents again. Afterwards, all Covid related entry formalities seemed to be completed, and the traveler was led to a train, towards the main airport building, with all shops closed. Immigration was smooth as always and given the rather lengthy time spent until that point, the luggage was already circulating on the belt, ready for pick up. However, instead of just walking out into the arrival hall, the travelers were guided to the very left section of the arrival hall, where several lines formed for the buses to the different quarantine hotels. Depending on the locations of the hotels and the timings, the waiting time for the bus could vary between 10 to 50 minutes, and the buses would take the travelers directly to the hotel to start the quarantine.
''The restrictions in Hong Kong, especially the quarantine requirements, continue to make travelling to Hong Kong very unpopular.''
In summary, a traveler should be prepared to spend approximately 2 hours from landing to waiting in line for the buses; despite the process being relatively smooth, it is recommended to wear comfortable walking shoes given the distance between posts and the need for queuing. As a side note, it is worth noting that the date of arrival of the flight counts as the first day of the seven days quarantine. So, arriving in the evening or at a time close to midnight can reduce the quarantine time by almost an entire day, as opposed to landing in the early morning.
Hotel employee in full personal protective equipment.
However, compared to other destinations in Asia or worldwide, the restrictions in Hong Kong, especially the quarantine requirements, continue to make travelling to Hong Kong very unpopular. The quarantine arrangement seems to be more of an indirect subsidy from the travelers to the hotel industry, rather than a necessary precaution. As long as this policy stays in place, Hong Kong will remain absent from the international travel map and will be outpaced by other locations, a position which would be very difficult to remedy and return to in the future.
If you want to leave Hong Kong for good, this may be a good time;
If you are currently in Hong Kong, consider remaining in the borders unless you are travelling for a good cause and/or are prepared to go through the mandatory hotel quarantine;
If you are currently outside of Hong Kong, stay where you are.
For specific advice about your situation, please contact:
+852 2388 3899
+852 2388 3899