Hong Kong hoteliers 'play Tetris' to fit guests as Covid-19 quarantine flip-flop creates chaos for travellers

Travellers wait for shuttle buses to mandatory government-designated quarantine hotels at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, on Aug 17, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Within 30 minutes of Hong Kong reversing its seven-day quarantine policy, Ovolo Hotels' switchboard was swamped with calls. The operator of two facilities in the city's mandatory quarantine programme also got more than 850 e-mails, as frantic travellers sought to adjust their bookings.

Hong Kong's about-face - coming less than two months after it eased one of the world's toughest Covid-19 border regimes - is upending travel plans and causing chaos for hotels just weeks before the start of the school year and the end of the summer vacation period.

Triggered, officials say, by growing concern about the delta variant, Tuesday's (Aug 17) reversal saw the scrapping of a new rule that allowed vaccinated residents returning from medium-risk locations to quarantine in a hotel for just one week, half the typically required time.

The day before, countries including the US, Spain and France were classed as high risk, requiring a longer quarantine stay of 21 days. Some of the callers needed to extend their bookings, while others wanted to cancel their entire reservation, said Mr Sonesh Mool, Ovolo's operations manager. The suddenness of the shift makes the job more challenging, he said.

"It will be like playing Tetris as we're running at 90 per cent occupancy from August into October," Mr Mool said. "It's proven very difficult to serve guests with swift and timely adjustments - especially when hundreds of requests, emails, and calls come flooding."

The shift is reigniting criticism of Hong Kong's approach to reopening, which has been split between trying to restore some semblance of its global connectivity and keeping Covid-19 cases near zero, the only way to re-open the border with mainland China.

With infections limited over the past few months and the vaccination rollout progressing, this week's changes came as a surprise and have been slammed as regressive by business groups.

They also come as Singapore, Hong Kong's regional rival, eyes plans to resume some travel links as soon as next month.

Unlike other places with a similar closed-border, zero-tolerance approach like mainland China, Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong's government does not allocate quarantine hotel rooms to incoming travellers.

Instead, it's a free-for-all with individuals responsible for securing their own rooms and hotels free to set their own pricing. That means that sudden shifts in policy results in a scramble, with some people unable to board their flights because they can't secure an adequate booking.

The move "creates disruptions for almost everyone returning from Europe, no matter what your category is", said Mr Frederik Gollob, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. The situation is "a mess" and "everyone running hotel operations in Hong Kong is freaking out right now. Everyone has to change their own arrangements".

The average booking rate at designated quarantine hotels for September - before the changes were announced - is around 70 per cent, the city's Food and Health Bureau said on Tuesday. The impact of the tightened curbs remains to be seen, the government department said.

"We will continue to closely monitor the demand for hotel rooms and consider the need for releasing some 1,500 reserve rooms in individual quarantine hotels if and where necessary," it said.

Mr Mathew Phan booked a flight from Hong Kong to the US just four days before Monday's shift deeming 15 countries high risk. The financial analyst now faces three weeks locked in a hotel room when he returns from the US, where he's due to attend a course in October. Mr Phan echoed the anger of many at the unexpected changes, which lit up Facebook and other social media groups founded to negotiate the complicated quarantine system.

"Super annoying," Mr Phan, 40, said. "If this policy is just because they were just trying to manage a statistic that would just be stupid."

With Hong Kong increasingly intertwined with the mainland, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been laser focused on trying to reopen the border. Chinese tourists were one of the city's biggest sources of revenue before the pandemic, and the removal of quarantines on both sides would allow a resumption of business flows. But Beijing has given little indication of a pathway to easing border curbs, and China is in the midst of a virus resurgence, ignited by delta slipping through its own tight controls.

No timetable

"I can't see this would help," said Mr Danny Lau, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association. "There's no timetable at the moment, nor a clear guideline on the conditions for border reopening."

What's more, the longer quarantine period will affect Hong Kong-based companies' overseas activities, said Mr Lau, who had scheduled a client meeting in the US around the end of September, but is now thinking of shelving it due to the quarantine reversal.

Individuals are responsible for securing their own rooms and hotels free to set their own pricing. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

More contagious than the original strain, Delta has spread rapidly throughout the world, infiltrating even the most stringent border curbs in so-called Covid Zero countries, which are targeting elimination of the virus.

New Zealand - which has a similar hotel quarantine system to Hong Kong, though only mandates 14-day stays - locked down the entire country on Tuesday after finding one delta case in the community.

Hong Kong has only seen one locally-transmitted Delta case in over two months, but the city's mix of vaccines also means it needs to be cautious, said Dr Ivan Hung, a University of Hong Kong professor who sits on a committee advising the government on vaccinations.

Hong Kong has been administering both the messenger RNA shot made by Germany's BioNTech and a more traditional vaccine from China's Sinovac Biotech. Sinovac's shot has proven less effective than the mRNA inoculations in clinical trials. Fully vaccinated people can also still spread the virus to others, said Dr David Hui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Hui also sits on an advisory panel that recommended the government increase the quarantine period back to 14 days.

Dr Hui pointed to the government's internal data that shows only 88.5 per cent of cases in fully vaccinated travellers were picked up in the first seven days after arrival. Hong Kong will increase the frequency of testing during hotel quarantine and review the data in due course to refine the isolation periods, he said.

Track record

Concern there could be further shifts or about-turns is rising given the government's track record. It has been criticised in the past for shifting back and forth on school closures, and its seemingly random application of some social-distancing curbs. Gatherings in public of more than four people are still banned, though thousands have been attending packed indoor events like art and book fairs.

Rules requiring anyone exposed to an outbreak within Hong Kong to quarantine at spartan isolation facilities has raised the ire of the city's still significant expat community.

Mr Phan, the financial analyst is now looking to overhaul his plans. He's thinking of rerouting his flight back from the US through Singapore, which falls in the medium-risk category, to avoid a three-week quarantine stint. "Working from home has been depressing enough," he said. "If I'm working by myself in a hotel room, that's going to be really awful for me - I really want to avoid that at all costs."

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