Hong Kong to hand out half a million free air tickets in bid to grow visitor numbers
Hong Kong’s government is to start handing out U.S.$272 million worth of free plane tickets in a bid to boost visitor numbers, as the city seeks to kickstart economic growth following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions by Beijing.
Airport Authority chief executive officer Fred Lam said the government will distribute more than half a million free tickets via the city’s own airlines to encourage tourism in the wake of the end of the pandemic measures.
“There are more than 600,000 air tickets, which is quite a number, so we hope to distribute them in an orderly manner,” Lam said.
He said the government would distribute the tickets via airlines in tranches beginning with the first 80,000 tickets on March 1. The tickets will be handed out by Cathay Pacific, HK Express and Hong Kong Airlines, he added.
The move is part of a U.S.$2 billion scheme aimed at wooing visitors back to Hong Kong, which officials say was the world’s most-visited city before the pandemic emerged in late 2019, and before the stringent restrictions of Beijing’s zero-COVID policy dealt the industry a death blow.
“We hope that distribution will be completed within six months or so, because … we feel Hong Kong’s aviation industry will need the most help over the next six to nine months,” Lam said at the launch of the “Hello, Hong Kong” scheme.
“We will start from Southeast Asia, and gradually expand to other regions,” Lam said, adding that the ticket releases would be coordinated with the Tourism Board’s own promotions.
The “Hello, Hong Kong” campaign will also include invitations to around 1,000 global VIPs and journalists, financial secretary Paul Chan told a news conference on Thursday.
More than a million vouchers offering discounts on food, drinks, transport, hotels, retail and attractions will also be handed out at border checkpoints with mainland China, while the city will host 250 major festivals and events this year, including the Rugby Sevens, the Hong Kong Marathon and the Clockenflap music festival, officials said.
‘A lot of catching up to do’
Hong Kong received 56 million visitors in 2019, more than seven times its own population. But its economic growth rate has plummeted in the wake of the zero-COVID restrictions, which were lifted by decree from Beijing in early December.
“Why are things so bad? Because the city has been under restrictions for too long,” Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School researcher Lee Siu Po told Radio Free Asia.
“Japan opened its doors last October, and Taiwan too. Only Hong Kong didn’t open up,” Lee said. “They have to use such methods because they have a lot of catching up to do.”
“It may be a bit unusual, but maybe they didn’t expect such a big policy change [from Beijing], so suddenly,” he said.
The dearth of tourist numbers also comes amid an ongoing exodus of highly trained professionals and white-collar workers who are fleeing a citywide crackdown on political dissent under a draconian national security law imposed by Beijing from July 2020.
Hong Kong plummeted eight positions in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2022, to 88th place.
“Hong Kong’s position in the Democracy Index has continued to worsen for a number of reasons,” the EIU said in a report explaining the index. “The quality of the territory’s renowned civil service was undermined by an exodus of experienced staff in 2022 in response to the deteriorating political situation and the shrinking space of freedom.”
It said the enforcement of the national security law had made it increasingly difficult to organize independent trade unions in the city, resulting in a downgrade in the relevant indicator in the Democracy Index.
“These setbacks come on top of the erosion of media and academic freedoms that has occurred in recent years,” the report said.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.