Hong Kong can open up to world once Covid-19 wave subsides, Carrie Lam says

Mrs Carrie Lam did not provide further details on how the city would open up, referring instead to previous statements. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's leader said she's hopeful the international financial hub can lower barriers with the outside world after the current Covid-19 outbreak wanes.

Speaking at the same time as Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the lifting of most restrictions for vaccinated visitors to the rival financial centre, Mrs Carrie Lam said Thursday (March 24) she remains "very optimistic" Hong Kong can resume talks to reopen the border with mainland China as well as "open up to the rest of the world" once "this wave subsides".

Hong Kong's government has shifted away from its tough Covid Zero stance after being overwhelmed by rapid spread of the omicron variant.

Hotel quarantine for arrivals will be halved to seven days from next week, while flight bans on some countries will be lifted.

Yet many business groups say the government isn't going far enough. Mrs Lam on Wednesday said officials were looking at ways to resolve flight and hotel room shortages under existing rules.

Speaking at a daily press conference Thursday, the Hong Kong chief executive didn't provide further details on how the city would open up, referring instead to previous statements.

Hong Kong's continued isolation and social-distancing rules have led to an exodus of residents as well as increasing economic hardship.

A net 144,000 people have left the city this year, almost four times the number for the whole of 2021, according to official data and Bloomberg Intelligence calculations.

The economy is struggling, 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 countries in Asia, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, that are taking steps to allow vaccinated travellers to enter freely.

Senior officials in Singapore have said the country is looking to restore passenger volume at Changi Airport to at least 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by later this year, compared to 18.2 per cent currently.

Singapore also announced the lifting of a requirement to wear masks outdoors. In Hong Kong, it's mandatory to wear a mask, even when doing exercise. Violators face a fine of HK$5,000 (S$868).

When asked whether Hong Kong would follow Singapore's easing measures, Mrs Lam said there's no one size that fits all approach.

"It's not meaningful to ask us to choose, whether you're going for route A or route B," Mrs Lam said. "We'll have to adjust and do whatever is in the best interest of Hong Kong."

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