Mainland tourists at Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, in 2017. Photo: Xinhua

Hong Kong will cancel its hotel quarantine rule and negative PCR test requirement before boarding for international travelers from September 26, the government said today in a long-awaited policy shift to revive the city’s sagging status as an international business hub.

Hong Kong will adopt a so-called “0+3” arrangement whereby incoming travelers will no longer need to stay in quarantine hotels but should avoid gatherings or going to high-risk premises in the first three days, or self-monitoring period, after their arrivals. Currently, the city maintains a “3+4” arrangement with a three-day hotel quarantine requirement.

Travelers unvaccinated against Covid-19 will also be allowed to fly to Hong Kong beginning on September 26.

The relaxation comes earlier than expected as local newspapers reported Thursday that the changes would be announced next week and likely implemented in early October. Last week, Hong Kong media reported the relaxation would not be implemented until November.

When Taiwan cancels its three-day home isolation requirements from October 13, mainland China will be the last place in the world to maintain a “7+3” quarantine requirement.

While most Western countries lifted all of their quarantine requirements for international travelers in the first half of this year, Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China are among the few places remaining worldwide that still have quarantine rules.

Hong Kong cut its quarantine period from 21 to 14 days on February 5 and trimmed the requirement further to seven days on April 1. However, many companies carped that they were still not able to resume normal cross-border business activities with seven-day quarantine rules in place.

Hong Kong had earlier maintained a ‘Zero Covid’ policy in line with Beijing’s wishes. Photo: AFP / Simon Jankowski / NurPhoto

Foreign and local chambers of commerce have repeatedly expressed discontent as the Hong Kong government failed to answer their calls for the resumption of quarantine-free travel. That’s resulted in a brain drain from the city, with many professionals scattering across the region including to Singapore, that may or may not be easily replaced.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said if the number of Covid cases remains within a manageable range after the relaxation then the government would cancel the remaining three-day self-monitoring period.

Jeffrey Lam, an Executive Council member and pro-business lawmaker, said he hoped that the remaining three-day self-monitoring period would be canceled by the end of October.

Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau, who previously criticized foreign media for spreading rumors about a possible relaxation of Covid rules, said hotel quarantine could be canceled as Hong Kong’s epidemic situation had improved more quickly than expected.

Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong representative in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, said Friday that Chinese officials had already agreed that Hong Kong could decide its own Covid strategy as long as it could manage the epidemic situation.

China is expected to maintain strict “Zero Covid” rules until at least after the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress, which begins on October 16. President Xi Jinping is widely expected to receive another five-year term at the event, which Beijing clearly does not want to be jeopardized by rampant viral outbreaks.

Hong Kong is getting a head start in reopening, buoying hopes for an economic rebound. Cathay Pacific announced plans to resume 200 flights to Asian and Western countries next month as well as additional flights to Japan in November.

Shares of EGL Holdings, a Hong Kong-listed travel agency, rose 38% to HK$1.05 (13.4 US cents) on Friday. WWPKG Holdings, another travel agency, increased 15% to 19 HK cents.

Cathay Pacific planes sit idle on the tarmac of Hong Kong’s airport. Photo: Facebook

Yet it is unclear what Hong Kong authorities will deem as a “manageable” level of Covid cases going forward. On Friday, Hong Kong reported 5,387 Covid cases with 12 deaths. On Thursday, the city recorded 5,990 positive cases with 17 dead.

The loosening of Covid rules was announced after the latest Global Financial Centres Index (GFCI) showed on Thursday that Singapore had supplanted Hong Kong as the world’s third largest financial city. New York City remained the No.1 financial city globally with London second.

Published twice a year, the index was compiled by Z/Yen Group in London and the China Development Institute in Shenzhen.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index on Thursday fell 1.6% to 18,147 points, marking the lowest level in 11 years after the US Federal reserves raised interest rates by another 75 basis points on Wednesday. The index further dropped 1.18% on Friday and has declined by 10.1% so far this month.

Mainland China on Friday announced 748 Covid cases with 627 of them asymptomatic. Most cases were identified in Heilongjiang, Tibet, Sichuan and Guizhou, far enough away from Beijing not to present a clear and present danger to next month’s congress.

Medical experts have said Hong Kong and Taiwan are better positioned than mainland China to “live with the virus” as their residents were mostly inoculated with Western-made mRNA vaccines rather than China’s less-effective indigenous shots. 

Official figures show that the number of Covid cases fell after Hong Kong engaged in mass vaccination using western mRNA vaccines.

The number of Covid cases in Hong Kong fell precipitously after authorities launched a mass vaccination drive using Western mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna in February and March, official figures show.

It is still unclear when mainland China will lift its quarantine rules as the country’s residents are largely inoculated with Sinopharm and Sinovac inactivated vaccines, which appear to be particularly ineffective against the Omicron variant.

Nor has China achieved herd immunity as most cities and urban areas have not suffered from large-scale virus outbreaks because of the strict lockdown measures applied as per its Zero Covid policy. 

Read: HK may finally lift quarantine rules in Nov

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3