Hong Kong’s status as global travel hub wavers under zero Covid rule

By Shirley Lau

Hong Kong, Apr 12 (EFE).- Before the pandemic, Hong Kong’s world-class airport bustled with travelers but now one of the world’s busiest aviation hubs resembles something of a ghost town with footfall and cash flow all but dried up.

Just 16 flights arrived and 15 departed Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) on Monday, making for one of its slowest days since the pandemic began, while one month ago, arrival and departure flights numbered 50 ans 61.

Both sets of data contrast starkly with the airport’s pre-pandemic tally of some 1,100 flights per day on average.

A British expat returning to Hong Kong on Monday bemoaned the situation in a conversation with Efe, given on the condition of anonymity.

“Pre-covid, Hong Kong was perhaps the most efficient airport I have ever traveled through — and I have traveled extensively. It was buzzing with life. Now it is a ghost town,” the businesswoman said.

“To be suddenly back in a place which is still speaking of zero Covid feels very disempowering and a bit backward, to be honest,” she added in reference to Hong Kong’s pandemic policy, which is in line with Beijing’s stringent approach.

The situation at the airport failed to improve despite Hong Kong authorities deciding to lift a months-long flight ban on April 1.

The city continues to enforce a policy of mandatory quarantine for travelers, prompting some airlines to avoid the financial hub or downscale their operations.

Between April 1-12, a total of 10 flight routes operated by eight airline companies, including Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and Emirates, were suspended for one week.

The suspension was based on a rule whereby a route can be canceled if at least one inbound traveler fails to comply with entry requirements, or at least three travelers test positive. In the whole of March, 11 routes were halted temporarily.

The harsh cancellation policy, along with quarantine measures for aircrew members, has in the past two years discouraged various airlines from flying to Hong Kong. Since December 2021, Virgin Atlantic has suspended flights to the city and will not resume them until September. British Airways is still not flying to Hong Kong until at least May 28.

For many years, HKIA, which employs 78,000 people and has directly and indirectly contributed about 5% of the Asian financial center’s GDP, had been among the world’s top five busiest airports by international passenger traffic.

But it has lost that status since the pandemic. In 2019, the multi-award-winning airport handled 71.5 million passengers and 419,730 flights; in 2020 the figures respectively plummeted by 87% and 62% to 8.8 million passengers and 160,655 flights. In 2021, they further dropped to 1.4 million passengers and 144,815 flights.

The development is concerning for aviation experts. At a press conference last week, Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said Hong Kong was “basically off the map today… It’ll lag much behind the rebound we’re seeing everywhere, and it’ll be a difficult period for any airlines operating there.”

That was a “fair comment,” although all that is just temporary, according to Dr. Law Cheung-kwok, senior advisor of the Aviation Policy and Research Center of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“The Hong Kong airport has definitely disappeared from the map of international aviation. [Walsh]’s comment was a statement of fact. Zero Covid should be a transitional policy. Eventually we need to live with the virus.”

“It should take two to three years for Hong Kong to recover. In 2019, half of the 70 million air passengers were on transit and half came to Hong Kong. As long as the city can keep its status as an international financial center — I believe it can — there will always be travelers and its aviation hub status can be maintained,” he told Efe.

Nonetheless, even after the pandemic is over, Hong Kong’s standing as a global aviation hub may not be as robust as before due to competition from airports in nearby mainland Chinese cities, Dr. Law said.

Recently, Hong Kong marked the completion of a third runway at HKIA. The first phase of the project will be launched into operation later this year.

Related Articles

Back to top button