HONG KONG — Hong Kong announced Friday it would lift mandatory hotel quarantine for people arriving abroad, ending one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 policies as Asia follows other parts of the world in transition. to get out of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since November 2020, the Chinese territory and the international financial center have required all arrivals from abroad to stay in a designated quarantine hotel for up to 21 days, at the traveler’s expense. Travelers to Hong Kong, which is home to a large number of Americans and other expats, have often complained about poor conditions in overcrowded hotels, as well as dramatic increases in prices that hotels themselves charge.
As of Monday, international travelers to Hong Kong will still have to take a PCR test upon arrival at the airport, but will not have to wait for the result. Their movements around the city will be restricted for the first three days after their arrival, with entry to bars and restaurants prohibited until they pass a second test.
Hong Kong’s announcement comes a day after Japan and Taiwan also eased longstanding border restrictions. On Thursday, Japan said it would welcome all independent tourists from October 1. 11, reinstating visa-free travel and lifting a cap on the total number of visitors.
Taiwan, which currently requires three days of home quarantine for arrivals from abroad, said on Thursday that it planned to end the quarantine on October 1. 13, depending on the number of cases over the next week.
Countries like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore that closed their borders early in the pandemic are now fully open to outside visitors and have largely lifted restrictions.
The biggest outlier remains mainland China, the only major economy to have stuck to a “Covid-zero” strategy of closed borders, isolation of confirmed cases, mass testing and lockdowns. International travelers arriving in mainland China must spend at least 10 days in some form of quarantine.
This week, at least 27 people in Guizhou province died in a bus accident on the way to a quarantine center, sparking outrage online.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has staked his credibility on the success of “Covid Zero,” is unlikely to change course before a crucial Communist Party congress next month in which he is expected to win an unprecedented third term. .
Chinese officials say their covid policies have saved lives, pointing to a high death toll in the United States and other countries, but have also contributed to an economic slowdown and prompted foreign investors to reconsider their presence in China. long term in the country.
“Ideology is trumping economics,” the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said in an annual position paper released on Wednesday.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle, has been torn during the pandemic between two conflicting priorities: reopening its border with mainland China versus reopening the rest of the world. country. world. Mainland officials signaled this week that they had no objection to Hong Kong relaxing its Covid policies.
After remaining virtually Covid-free for the first two years of the pandemic following Beijing’s lead, Hong Kong experienced a major outbreak last spring fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant. More than 7,500 people, most of them elderly and unvaccinated, died in less than two months, and photos of patients on gurneys strewn across hospital parking lots drew worldwide attention.
The hotel’s quarantine policy, originally designed to protect the city from “imported” infections from abroad, has come under increasing criticism as the number of cases in the local community far exceeded the number of people arriving abroad and they tested positive for the virus.
The city of 7 million has reported an average of around 6,700 cases a day over the past week, fewer than 200 of them among arrivals from abroad.
Announcing the relaxation of restrictions on Friday, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee stressed the continued need to reduce the number of serious cases and deaths.
“We won’t ‘lie down,'” Lee said, using a Chinese phrase meaning to do the bare minimum.
The city will also remove the requirement for travelers to obtain a negative PCR test within 48 hours of leaving Hong Kong, replacing it with a rapid antigen test 24 hours in advance.
Although Friday’s announcement drew sighs of relief in Hong Kong, experts warn the city will take time to recover from the damage of years of isolation. The restrictions have caused an exodus of local and foreign residents to rival financial hubs such as Singapore, which jumped one place ahead of Hong Kong to No. 3 in the ranking. Global Financial Centers Index published on Thursday.
Travel in and out of Hong Kong will also continue to be hampered by the limited number of flights, which airlines have cut in response to crew quarantine requirements and other restrictions. Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said this week that Hong Kong had lost its status as a world aviation hub as a result of its Covid policies.
Rhoda Kwan other Reuters contributed.