The 150,000-ton World Dream is one of Asia’s largest cruise liners. Photo: Asia Times

People in Hong Kong will be able to spend their summer holidays in international waters by joining the “cruises to nowhere” program – otherwise known as a “seacation” – if no travel bubbles can be formed with other places by late July.

All crew members and passengers must be fully vaccinated two weeks before boarding, Commerce Secretary Edward Yau told a media briefing on Wednesday. Those who are physically unfit for vaccinations must present medical proof, while passengers should have tested negative for Covid-19 in the previous 48 hours before the trip, Yau said.

The cruise ship could utilize up to 50% of its capacity, but cannot stop at any destinations for public health reasons, Yau said. If anyone on the cruise tests positive preliminarily, the cruise has to immediately return to Hong Kong’s ports – the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal or the Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui – he added.

Yau said “exceptional measures” would be needed to make sure journeys are safe, and the government was in negotiations with cruise operators. He said the program would probably be able to kick off in late July.

Four-day or three-day cruises would be provided for about HK$1,000 (US$129) per day, said Yuen Chun-ning, chief executive of travel agency WWPKG. Such trips would be “better than nothing” for the travel industry, Yuen said.

Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) chairman Pang Yiu-kai welcomed the launch of the program, saying it would help the city’s tourism sector recover. Pang said the HKTB would work with consumers and cruise lines to rebuild passenger confidence.

Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said the anti-epidemic measures would be tighter than those for hotels, and the ships would have negative-pressure rooms and doctors on board.

Yiu said he believed passengers on cruises would have a lower chance of catching Covid-19 than they would in the community.

In early February 2020, a cluster of Covid-19 infection cases occurred on the Diamond Princess cruise ship which docked in Yokohama. Of some 3,700 passengers and crew, about 370 were from Hong Kong.

The 712 confirmed Covid-19 cases associated with the cruise included 76 Hong Kong residents who were hospitalized in Japan for isolation and treatment. Three Hong Kong residents passed away, while the remaining 73 returned to Hong Kong or their places of residence within two months.

Prior to this, three Chinese passengers who took the World Dream cruise to Vietnam between January 19 and 24 last year were later found to be infected with the coronavirus. The ship docked in the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal with thousands of passengers stranded on it for five days.

The “cruises to nowhere” program was announced on Wednesday, but was originally scheduled for the relaunch of a travel bubble scheme between Hong Kong and Singapore. Authorities in the two cities announced on May 17 that the scheme would be delayed for the second time due to a virus outbreak in Singapore.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said people needed to be vaccinated before going to the mainland. Photo: www.info.gov.hk

Vaccine passport

Last Saturday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a Facebook post that vaccination would be a prerequisite for Hongkongers to travel to the mainland or any other places without having to be quarantined.

She said the European Union was set to introduce the “vaccine passport” policy in July so people could move freely within the bloc, and said she believed similar policies would be applied to travelers from other parts of the world as well.

“When the Hong Kong government discusses travel arrangements with other countries or places, it will require Hong Kong residents to be vaccinated, so as to make sure they would not be infected when they are abroad, and would not bring the virus back to Hong Kong,” said Lam.

She did not give details, nor did she explain whether unvaccinated people would be banned from leaving Hong Kong, or whether they would have to undergo quarantine upon returning.

Medical experts have said Hong Kong must significantly increase its vaccination rate to 50-70% before it can form travel bubbles with other countries and allow quarantine-free travel. However, such a target has remained far from being reached.

Giveaway jabs

On Wednesday, Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Health, told lawmakers in the Legislative Council that Hong Kong had received four million doses of vaccine, but only 940,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine and 1.23 million doses of the BioNTech vaccine had been administered because of people’s hesitation about getting vaccinated.

Chan said the government had told the manufacturers to postpone shipments and would give away the jabs that are going to expire. She said Hong Kong would bear the logistic costs if the ordered jabs were shipped directly from the factory to the recipient countries.

Joseph Tsang, an infectious disease expert from the Medical Association, said Hong Kong should extend its vaccination program to include children aged 11 to 15 as more than 800,000 doses of the BioNTech vaccine in the territory would be given away to other places if they were left unused.

Tsang said other places, including the United States, Canada and Singapore, had already been allowing under 16s to receive the vaccine. He said he was disappointed that Hong Kong still could not approve the jab for youngsters.

The government said on Tuesday that it was planning to administer vaccines to about 13,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong at four to six community vaccination centers from July. The plan was praised by the Hong Kong Society for Asylum-Seekers and Refugees.

Read: HK edges closer to reopening border with mainland