Expat exodus builds in Hong Kong, but escape is expensive

The ranks of people leaving Hong Kong for good are steadily increasing but many are finding that getting out is no easy feat. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - After calling Hong Kong home for 30 years, Tina, a self-employed mum, is calling it quits on the city and moving to Portugal. But with 10 of her booked flights to Europe cancelled in the past year, her travails show how Hong Kong's "zero-Covid-19" policy is making getting out almost as hard as coming in.

Tina is currently booked on a flight to Amsterdam the first week of March and has given her landlord notice. In addition to the stress of another nixed flight wreaking havoc on her plans, she also has to avoid catching the coronavirus in the midst of the city's worst outbreak so far, as becoming infected could delay her exit by potentially weeks due to quarantine rules.

After more than two years of Covid-19 restrictions that have no end in sight alongside a deepening political crackdown, the ranks of people leaving the Asian financial hub for good are steadily increasing - but many are finding that getting out is no easy feat.

The city's growing isolation from the rest of the world means that they must juggle cancelled flights, astronomical shipping fees and logistical chaos that even have some resorting to taking private jets with their pets.

"I'm completely, emotionally overwhelmed," said Tina, who asked not to be identified by her full name. "If this flight is cancelled, I'm homeless with my dog. If one thing goes wrong, it affects your entire planning for the trip."

Empty Airport

Even as more countries, including regional rival Singapore, move to live with the virus and resume travel, Hong Kong has doubled down on "zero-Covid-19". That strategy, which has long required weeks-long quarantines for all arrivals, is becoming even stricter as the city battles a surge in infections that has crossed into more than 6,000 daily cases.

Now, as the government plans to test the entire city of 7.5 million and looks to use about 10,000 hotel rooms as government isolation facilities, some are accelerating their plans to leave as the threat of being pulled aside for quarantine grows stronger. The number of arrivals has remained within the mid-hundreds while departures has jumped to as high as 3,100 per day, levels not seen since Hong Kong added quarantine rules to arrivals in March 2020.

Hong Kong's top market regulator has warned that the city's development as an international financial centre is at risk after the agency lost 12 per cent of its employees last year. A recent report from the European Chamber of Commerce in the city said that Hong Kong's isolation could last into 2024, and that it anticipates an unprecedented exodus of foreigners as a result.

Once one of the world's premier transit hubs, Hong Kong has now banned flights from nine countries including Britain and the US, and halted passengers transiting from all places except China and Taiwan. Air passenger volumes in Hong Kong plunged to just 1.35 million, the lowest since 1967, and representing a near 85 per cent drop from 2020. Those who are leaving are encountering slim pickings when it comes to flights.

While Hong Kong handled as many as 1,400 flights daily before the pandemic, only 268 flights went through the airport on Jan 31. Options are limited as major airlines have stopped or reduced flights to Hong Kong due to the city's quarantine rules for air crew and penalties for airlines that carry too many infected passengers.

Next month, Cathay Pacific Airways only has three scheduled flights to London Heathrow, four to Sydney and none to New York. Pre-pandemic, Cathay flew more than 100 flights monthly to each of those cities.

Shipping Chaos

Many on their way out are also getting hit with sky-high shipping bills amid ongoing disruptions in logistics that have pushed up freight costs. Psychology professor Annett Schirmer, who is leaving her job at a university in Hong Kong, is expecting to pay HK$236,000 (S$40,600) to ship a 40ft container of her furniture and household goods to Austria. The shipping cost for a 20ft container from Hong Kong to Europe has increased four-fold from a year ago, according to the Hong Kong Sea Transport and Logistics Association. Moving a 20ft container to Britain now costs upwards of HK$150,000 (S$25,800).

People are also facing the prospect of waiting months before they can reunite with their belongings. Mr Kingson Lee, an executive committee member at the association, said before the pandemic it took only about 40 days for shipments to travel to Europe. Now, it could take double the time, with shipments delayed as much as 120 days because some firms wait for prices to drop before they ship.

Pet Complications

The high cost of moving pets also means that shelters are full as many owners choose to leave them behind. PHOTO: AFP

Having a pet significantly raises the challenge of getting out. Of the airlines still flying out of Hong Kong, many no longer take animals or have limited quotas for them. Prof Schirmer, who has four pets, will not be able to take all of them on a commercial flight due to limits, and is now planning to travel with her elderly dog on a private jet while the others fly as excess baggage and cargo. The price to transport the three dogs and a cat will add an additional US$30,000 or more to her costs. Prof Schirmer and others are seeking out desperate pet owners to share the costs of a charter flight.

In a Facebook group called "HK Private Jet Sharing with Dogs" with more than 1,500 members, a shared flight to the United States East Coast is quoted as costing US$31,000, and US$18,000 to London for a pet and its owner as of this month. The high cost of moving pets also means that shelters are full as many owners choose to leave them behind.

Ms Lauren Fine, an administrator at an international school who is planning to leave for Israel after 15 years in the city, will need to re-home her cat of 11 years when she departs in June to Israel as the cost and uncertainty of moving an animal is overwhelming, she said. She is leaving with just a handful of boxes and a few pieces of furniture.

"It's really awful - incomprehensible, that I have to re-home my cat," she said. "I keep telling her how much I love her."

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