Baby steps in Hong Kong as Dr. Duty Free’s clinic opens

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Breaking news: Hong Kong to allow non-residents to fly into city starting next month

The latest of hundreds of daily email pings, this time from the South China Morning Post, grabbed my attention immediately. Was this the breakthrough the Hong Kong tourism and travel retail sectors have been craving?

As I read on, it quickly became clear that the answer was not quite. Progress but – as so often has been the case here during the pandemic – progress that is likely to produce a whole new set of problems.

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Let’s start with the good news. After a period of 14 months when most would-be visitors have simply not been allowed into Hong Kong, all that changes on 1 May. All arrivals at Hong Kong International Airport, including residents and visitors, will be required to take a rapid antigen test (RAT), in addition to PCR ones, the story revealed. So far so good..

And then the further and the not so good.

Those who test negative via RAT – the test, that is, not the rodent – must take dedicated transport to undergo seven days of quarantine at designated hotels, while waiting for their PCR test results.

That means people such as me and anyone in Hong Kong with a job that requires occasional or regular travel must secure and fund a seven-day hotel stay each time they return. Sure, it’s better than the 14 days I did last year and much, much better than the subsequent 21 days that people such as King Power Group CEO Sunil Tuli were forced to do this year for a subsequent stay that was virtually the same duration. But it is still problematic in cost, stress and personal terms.

Progress then? Sure. Society of IATA Passenger Agents Chairman Tommy Tam Kwong-shun told The South China Morning Post that Hong Kong could now expect over 100,000 visitors each month. It’s what nightlife and entertainment magnate Allan Zeman, who lobbied the government to relax travel restrictions, described as a “baby step forward” in the South China Morning Post report.

But consider this. In March 2019, in those long, almost forgotten pre-pandemic days, Hong Kong International Airport served 6.4 million passengers. Jump forward 24 months through the COVID-darkness and the number had plummeted to 94,000 – a -98.5% freefall. Frightening.

And the whole new set of problems I referred to? Simple. Quarantine hotel space demand will soar. Already securing a hotel of any standard let alone of the decent variety is tricky. That is accentuated by airlines getting suspended for bringing in three or more passengers who test positive for COVID-19 (five from 1 May, which is at least a move in the right direction) and at least one or more fail to show all the required documents related to their health condition, travel history and hotel quarantine arrangements.

That in itself is curious logic. Unless the airline staff have failed to check the documentation, what have they done wrong? An airline cannot conduct on-departure tests so what else can they do? All those suspensions (25 times between 1 and 20 April) means cancelled flights; hurried, expensive travel alternatives (if available); and lost quarantine hotel rooms if none are available.

As a good industry friend in Hong Kong who needs to travel for both family and professional reasons pointed out to me yesterday, “This is only going to make the quarantine hotel bottleneck even worse. They are the issue now!”

Planning out the balance of my year is therefore a logistical dilemma. In my ideal world I would visit the Singapore show in early May, followed by assignments and obligations in Qatar, Dubai and Saudi Arabia the same month.

I have to be in Vietnam and Switzerland in June, Ireland and the UK in July (including for my younger son’s graduation) and August (to see his play at the Edinburgh Fringe). And I am sure amid what appears now to be a highly encouraging acceleration of sector recovery, there will be many other commitments.

Do I stay on the road for four months with all the commensurate cost in financial and family terms? Come and go out of Hong Kong, with a not dissimilar toll? Then head back to Europe for the Cannes show in October? Back for another week at a quarantine hotel? And then off to The Trinity Forum which is likely to return in November (watch this space)? Followed by, yes, more quarantine.

Actually I’m going to flip the order of the words to hotel quarantine as the resultant acronym, HQ, is what such hotels are effectively becoming for those of us who remain in Hong Kong with jobs that demand regular travel.

Don’t get me wrong. As I wrote in a previous Blog (pictured above right) that has attracted an extraordinary 48,108 views, I’m not giving up on Hong Kong. It will bounce back. It always does. It’s just got further to bounce this time.

As Mr Zeman rightly points out, the baby steps – always the trickiest – have been taken. Just a couple more pragmatic strides then and things would look a whole lot better here and stop the increasingly alarming exodus of executive talent.

One, let residents serve their seven days of quarantine at home. Ensure they deploy an appropriate quarantine app and even have a security wrist tag fixed for the period (as was the case when I moved here in July 2020). Sure, some people abused the system last time, absconding from home quarantine and even tieing their wrist bands to their pets while heading out on the town. Put ultra-strict deterrents in place and ensure they are enforced.

Second, don’t punish the airlines for circumstances beyond their control. As long as appropriate documentation was provided and properly checked at the departure airport how can the airline be held to account? That is a nonsense and a self-defeating one for Hong Kong.

The way things were: A simple wristbrand and a home quarantine app from July 2020. Why not restore such measures for Hong Kong residents but more strictly enforce them?

Hotel quarantine or not, it is almost time for me to hit the road. I confess that after some 27 months of avoiding COVID, I’m a little wary of flying into so many countries that have a much more relaxed attitude to the virus. Accordingly, I headed off to Central today to get my BioNTech booster shot (and fourth jab in all) at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre.

Getting older usually sucks but there are occasional benefits. To be able to enjoy the glory of the Discovery Bay-Central ferry ride for just HK$20 (US$2.55) is one. Being near the front of the queue for the booster shot is another.

I suppose I should be an expert on such medical matters given that I have just been named ‘Dr. Duty Free’ by popular consumer media platform Globuy [玩转全球免税] for its regular Duty Free News Flash programme.

In this case my services are limited to answering consumer questions about the duty free sector, an area I feel well-qualified to issue a diagnosis on. And very soon, at long last, I will be the Flying Doctor.

The Doctor will see you now…

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