The deserted Terminal One of Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, ChristianSchd

Travel agencies in Hong Kong have urged the government to speed up “travel bubble” plans to let people travel abroad for business and sight-seeing without quarantine.

Players in the tourism industry say they have prepared for a possible relaxation of travel restrictions and hope that outbound trips could restart before the high season in Christmas.

Edward Yau, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, said Tuesday that officials were in discussions with 11 countries, including Japan, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Switzerland, Germany and France, about setting up travel bubbles. Five to six of these countries had shown interest.

Yau elaborated on Wednesday that health officials had started exchanging documents with counterparts in Japan and Thailand and would hold conferences soon.

He said the government had been discussing travel bubbles since June but progress was slow due to the virus outbreak in Hong Kong during the summer. He said there had been no timetable for the launch of the scheme because it was not something the special administrative region government could decide on its own.

He added that a traveller might have to do a pre-boarding test and another upon arrival to be exempt from quarantine. He said if a trip was longer than seven days, a traveler would probably need two more tests on the return trip.

Over the past two weeks, France has reported 84,126 cases while Germany has seen 17,224 cases, according to Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection. Japan and Thailand, the two most popular tourist destinations for HongKongers, recorded 9,113 and 48 cases, respectively.

In Hong Kong, the epidemic has been stabilized. During the 24 hours on Tuesday, the city identified six new cases, including one imported case and five local infections.

Freddy Yip Hing-ning, president of the Travel Agent Owners Association, said many Hong Kong people would join the travel bubble scheme because they had longed for overseas travel. Yip said people would choose to go to low-risk cities such as Okinawa and Kagoshima in Japan and Phuket and Chiang Mai in Thailand.

Yip said he hoped the Hong Kong government would subsidise the airlines to resume their services.

Steve Huen Kwok-chuen, an executive director of the EGL Holdings, which is a Hong Kong-listed travel agency, said travel packages would be tailor-made according to the requirements of the travel bubble scheme and avoid countries with high epidemic risks.

Yiu Si-wing, a director at China Travel Service and a lawmaker representing the tourism sector, said he hoped the travel bubble would be launched by the end of October. Yiu said business travelers and those visiting friends should be given higher priority than others.

However, academics seem pessimistic about the progress of the travel bubble.

Dennis Wong Ka-wing, senior lecturer in hospitality at the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education (Haking Wong), said he expected that travel bubbles could only be launched in another two months because the pandemic in many countries was not yet under control.

Wong said it could take about a year for Hong Kong’s tourism sector to resume most services and another two years to regain the high-growth momentum seen in the past.

Brian King, an associate dean and a professor from the Polytechnic University’s school of hotel and tourism management, described the scheme as a “bit of a wish-list at this stage” because it was not easy to sort out all the bureaucratic and other political concerns for each of the foreign countries.

King told RTHK that the government should focus more on Macau and the Greater Bay Area because tourism would probably restart closer to home.

Tourism industry players also hoped the launch of travel bubbles would help boost the number of incoming travelers.

According to the Tourism Board, visitor arrivals declined by 91.2% to 3.54 million in the first seven months of this year from 40 million in the same period last year. When the “third-wave” epidemic broke out in Hong Kong in July, arrivals dropped by 99.6% to 20,568 people from a year ago. About 75-80% of visitors came from mainland China.

The Hong Kong government said Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland would be allowed to reopen on September 18. The two theme parks were ordered to shut down again from mid-July, following the previous closure between February and May.

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