HONG KONG - Calls are growing for Hong Kong to scrap its requirement for all arrivals in the city to undergo a seven-day hotel quarantine.
The international financial hub is "obviously falling behind" as the rest of the world reopens from more than two years of the coronavirus pandemic, Cathay Pacific chairman Patrick Healy warned at the flagship airline's annual general meeting on Wednesday (May 11).
Business chambers are lobbying the government to end the stringent quarantine requirement as business travellers shun the city and more expatriates choose to relocate after prolonged periods of being forced to stay apart from their families abroad.
The recent death of veteran actor Kenneth Tsang, 86, in a quarantine hotel, also turned the spotlight on the measure, with the authorities revealing last week that at least five people had died during quarantine since December 2020.
For Mr C. H. Chong, an executive at a multinational corporation in Hong Kong, the travel quarantine is the main reason he has decided to look into relocating his family after a decade in the city he has grown to love.
"What really hit home was when our children, who were in universities overseas, couldn't return to Hong Kong for the past one year and I even had to miss one child's graduation," said Mr Chong, a Singaporean and Hong Kong permanent resident, expressing his disappointment at missing the graduation ceremony he had long looked forward to.
Hong Kong's borders have been largely shut to the rest of the world since the pandemic began.
At one point, it instituted a 21-day hotel quarantine on the few allowed to enter, which was gradually lowered to seven days last month after its fifth and worst wave of Covid-19 started to ease.
Although the city started welcoming back non-residents this month, it continues to impose flight bans on airlines found to be carrying infected passengers and requires tedious Covid-19 tests upon arrival.
All these measures add to the costs and uncertainty of travel to the city.
Until last month, the authorities had also barred all flights from nine countries, including Britain and the United States, where Mr Chong's children are studying.
For Mr Chong, the combination of his work demands, his children's school requirements, and the uncertainty of travel back into Hong Kong made it all but impossible for his family to plan reunions over the course of the pandemic.
Fed up with being kept apart from his children for so long while the rest of the world has been gradually reopening, he is looking to relocate, with Singapore as one of the options.
"I like Hong Kong very much, so I think I've already been quite tolerant of all these Covid-19 measures," he said.
"At first, it was the right thing to do. But now, with the science and vaccinations, I'm not worried about getting infected… When the whole world was still closed, it wasn't so bad. But now, I do need to travel again, and being stuck here and subjected to lengthy unreasonable quarantines is really starting to affect us.
"I'm not happy with the situation."
Since Hong Kong's fifth wave began on Dec 31 last year, imported Covid-19 cases have accounted for just 0.14 per cent of all of the city's confirmed infections, according to official data as at Wednesday.
Across the pandemic, the territory has recorded about 1.2 million Covid-19 infections and more than 9,300 related deaths, overwhelmingly among the elderly.
With people increasingly questioning the necessity of the hotel quarantines even as Hong Kong eases a range of other social distancing restrictions, medical experts are proposing alternative protocols.
Arrivals who have had their Covid-19 booster shots and tested negative at the airport should be allowed to isolate at home with an electronic tracking device, government health advisers Ivan Hung and David Hui told local media last week.
University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak Leung has also urged the government to let elderly people or those with special needs quarantine at home, after actor Tsang's death in a hotel.
Dr Ho said Hong Kong's quarantine policies were "out of touch" compared with other places.
Representatives of foreign business chambers have pressed Chief Executive-elect John Lee to loosen the travel restrictions when he takes the leadership reins come July 1. They have appealed to incumbent Chief Executive Carrie Lam, too.
"Almost daily, our members… have been reporting that they are unable to find their way back to Hong Kong or see their business travel being cancelled… seriously undermining the status of Hong Kong as an international business centre," the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong wrote in a letter to Mrs Lam last week.
"We all need to work together to overcome the unnecessary fear that Hong Kong has associated with travelling in the last few years."
A net 160,000 people left Hong Kong in the first quarter of the year.
Mrs Lam has acknowledged the brain drain among foreign firms as an "undeniable fact", while Mr Lee has promised to "restore Hong Kong's international status" and work on "removing obstacles" towards resuming free international travel in the city.
For some, though, a scrapping of the hotel quarantine or any other relaxation of the measures may already be too late.
"Most of the financial sector have concluded their business and manpower planning," said one Hong Kong-based bank employee on condition of anonymity. "Many, especially the American and European financial institutions, have already moved out headcounts… or created new ones back in their headquarters or at other regional hubs like Singapore."
For Mr Chong, too, even though he remains in Hong Kong for the time being, his experience over the past two years has catalysed his decision to relocate.
"Even if they lift all the travel measures now, I am still highly unlikely to change my mind," he said.