As Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day came and passed, hopes that the year’s first major holidays and observances would bring relief for Hong Kong's beleaguered travel and tour operators were thin.
The ongoing fourth coronavirus wave effectively cancelled the holidays, as the government retained its (then) current social distancing regulations until 17 February. Rules restricting diners, and all gatherings, to two people and on-site dining prohibited past 6pm meant restaurants still relied on delivery services, and the only industry players able to take advantage of the occasions were hotels offering themed weekend staycations.
As of 18 February, restrictions has since eased in light of dwindling new Covid-19 cases. Public sport venues have reopened, along with gyms and cinemas, and dining limits now raised to four — but the rest of 2021 remains a grey area for the city’s tour operators.
As a result, major operators are preparing for what many expect will be another six to 12 months of restrictions. Ronald Wu, chair of the Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents (HATA), pointed out that the association's membership has not dropped significantly in the past year, with most willing to ride out the storm by creatively cutting costs, offering exploratory excursions targeted at locals, and larger organisations such as Wing On, Jetour and Hong Thai expanding or adopting e-commerce elements for imported foods and other goods.
“I’m not sure any of these is about making a profit for these services. The larger ones are focused on keeping the business operating and ensuring customers are aware that they’re still here,” said Wu. “Social distancing is everywhere and it’s the opposite of what the industry is used to. Our members are in hibernation mode until travel resumes, which we do believe will happen.”
And the Hong Kong government believes just the same too — if Financial Secretary Paul Chan’s 2021-22 budget, announced on 24 February, is any indication.
The government pledged an additional HK$934 million (US$120 million) in financial aid to the tourism sector, including HK$169 million earmarked “to take forward local cultural, heritage and creative tourism projects,” beef up facilities on the city’s hiking trails, continue its green tourism development, and enhance the parks and harbourfront among other initiatives.
“It’s good to hear they’re going to continue the green tourism support, but a bit more could be done in terms of aid to operators and their staff,” said Wu. “We still don’t know when the borders are going open again, so in the first half of the year there’s not going to be much action.”
The government is also flirting with relaxing restrictions “in relation to local group tours again to allow room for business operation for the tourism industry”. That could mean the return of local tours designed to explore Hong Kong’s hidden corners, which gained traction quickly in 2020.
“Absolutely, people responded. The tours of up to 30 people were really popular, and the feedback was positive,” said Wu. For now, however, the industry is playing it by ear and hoping for a resumption of operations in early to mid-March.
“Business rebounds immediately for restaurants and theatres when restrictions loosen, but not for us. No one know how this vaccine will work, will we still need to quarantine? So much is up in the air right now. A Singapore bubble would be the first major step, but the key will be travel with China and Macau,” Wu concluded. “We’re expecting incremental improvements for the rest of the year.”