Hong Kong begins slow reopening with finance hub status at stake

People queue to enter Hong Kong Disneyland on April 21, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
A worker spraying disinfectant in a massage parlour a day before reopening in Hong Kong on April 20, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A group of women practise choreography near the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong on April 21, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Visitors queue to have their vaccination status checked before entering the M+ Museum in Hong Kong on April 21, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - At Caprice, a three-starred Michelin restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong, head chef Guillaume Galliot is getting ready to receive his first dinner guests in 15 weeks.

"Everyone is very excited and positive," said Mr Galliot, who has worked in restaurants across Asia and will use the reopening to launch a new menu. "We are now in full battery mode to reopen."

So are guests - dinner bookings are full for the next three weeks.

Hong Kong is beginning a slow path back to some sort of normality as the city's worst Covid-19 outbreak wanes. Gyms and sports facilities reopened on Thursday (April 21) after being closed since Jan 7, while restaurants can remain operating until 10pm, instead of 6pm.

People will also be able to gather in groups of four, up from two. Further easing of restrictions is expected in May and June if new cases continue to dwindle.

The shift caps a tumultuous few months for the city's 7.4 million residents. After some of the world's strictest quarantine rules kept Covid-19 at bay for almost two years, the highly transmissible Omicron strain ripped through the financial hub's defences to infect millions, according to some estimates.

Confusion over repeated government U-turns, including whether to lock residents in their homes or not, helped drive an exodus of expatriates and locals alike.

With daily new infections now numbering in the hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands, the focus is now on how far Hong Kong will go in opening up to the rest of the world and regain its role as an international finance hub.

While the city's outgoing leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, lifted country flight bans and reduced hotel quarantine for inbound travellers to seven days from as long as 21 days, airlines are regularly banned for carrying three or more passengers found to be infected on arrival.

Hong Kong's leading candidate for Mrs Lam's job has pledged to maintain the city's global competitive edge.

"Hong Kong must expand its international connectivity, establish a more favourable business environment, uphold the value of inclusion, diversity and openness, and further strengthen its competitiveness," former chief secretary John Lee said at a briefing earlier this month.

Mr Lee, a former police officer, is the sole candidate for the leadership role.

Hong Kong's restrictions have hurt the economy, with analysts steadily downgrading their growth forecasts for the year.

Before the pandemic, Hong Kong was one of the most visited destinations in the world. More than 65 million tourists came to the city in 2018. Last year, it was "close to zero", according to the city's tourism board.

Hong Kong's closed borders are in contrast to a growing number of places in Asia, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, that are taking steps to allow vaccinated travelers to enter freely. Singapore targets to remove all Covid-19 tests for fully vaccinated visitors "very soon", possibly in the next few weeks, according to the nation's tourism board this week.

Hong Kong's ability to open up is likely to be limited unless Beijing changes its approach to Covid-19.

The Communist Party of China's flagship newspaper this week called on the nation to support President Xi Jinping's Covid-19-zero strategy, signalling any shift in policy is unlikely even as lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere weigh on the economy.

Other rules, such as the mandatory wearing of masks while exercising and closure of beaches, will be eased in Hong Kong over the next two months, provided cases continue to fall, while bars will also be allowed to reopen. Schools restarted face-to-face learning this week.

Primary school students attend classes in Hong Kong on April 19, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A woman exercises at a gym on the day of its reopening following the Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong on April 21, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

For now, restaurant owners are looking forward to business.

Mr Danny Yip, owner of the Chairman, which was voted the best restaurant in Asia by World's 50 Best Restaurants last year, says the phone is ringing non-stop, e-mails are flooding in and the online booking system is almost jammed.

"We had booked out till end-July half a year ago, but everyone is calling up to confirm, making sure they have seats and asking to increase number of guests," Mr Yip said.

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