Hong Kong Tries to Repair Its Battered Image With Plane Ticket Giveaway

Interested in visiting a place that still calls itself “Asia’s world city” despite mounting evidence that it’s marching toward an insular, authoritarian future?

Would your answer change if the flight there were free?

The Hong Kong government announced this week that it would give away about half a million plane tickets to foreign tourists, starting in March, as part of a post-pandemic campaign to revive its slumping tourism industry.

The Chinese territory also rolled out a friendly-sounding slogan, “Hello Hong Kong,” and noted that two museums that had opened recently were “providing visitors with more exciting experiences.”

“Hong Kong is now seamlessly connected to the mainland of China and the whole international world,” John Lee, the city’s chief executive and a former police officer, said during a kickoff ceremony on Thursday.

He added that there would be no isolation, quarantine or restrictions on “enjoying the hustle and bustle of Asia’s world city.”

Well, not quite.

Even though Hong Kong abandoned many of its Covid restrictions late last year, mask wearing is still mandatory indoors and outdoors, with few exceptions. Anyone caught without one faces a fine of up to $1,275.

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And even if the former British colony is now open for business, its image as a safe, freethinking, cosmopolitan destination has suffered three grievous — critics say fatal — body blows over the past four years.

The first was the mass pro-democracy protests of 2019, which often featured fiery street clashes between demonstrators and police. Subway stations were damaged, and tear gas regularly wafted into dense neighborhoods packed with high-rises.

A year later, the central government imposed a sweeping national security law that gave authorities wide latitude to criminalize speech and stifle dissent in a territory once known for its independent courts and freewheeling legislature and newspapers. Pro-democracy lawmakers were arrested in droves, and prominent media outlets were forced to close. (On Monday, several defendants will stand trial in the largest case yet involving the security law.)

Then, for most of the coronavirus pandemic, the government sealed the territory’s borders and imposed some of the world’s harshest restrictions on daily life.

Beaches were closed for weeks on end. Playground equipment was sealed off with police tape and chain-link fencing. Residential buildings were locked down because of a few positive cases. And, for a long while, almost everyone arriving in the city, including residents, faced a mandatory three-week hotel quarantine.

The announcements on Thursday were the government’s latest effort to rebuild Hong Kong’s cratered tourism industry. The city counted about 600,000 visitor arrivals last year, compared with more than 65 million in 2018, the year before the protests began.

In 2020, Hong Kong paid a public relations firm about $6 million to help it “reconnect with the world and relaunch as soon as possible,” as a senior official put it last year.

The government said this week that its six-month plane ticket giveaway, financed by a pandemic-era relief package, will initially target travelers from Southeast Asia and later those from the Chinese mainland and other locales. The majority of the tickets will be offered through airlines based out of Hong Kong, including Cathay Pacific, while others will be given away through tourism-related businesses.

Dino Chen, 26, who works in public relations in Hong Kong, said that while she thought the campaign could draw visitors in the short term, the “unclear” atmosphere in the city’s political and cultural spheres helped make the overall outlook for tourism uncertain. (One example: Before Hong Kong’s long-awaited M+ contemporary art museum opened in 2021, pro-Beijing figures criticized pieces in its collection as an insult to China and called for them to be banned.)

“I’m not really optimistic about a long-term recovery,” Ms. Chen said.

The “Hello Hong Kong” campaign has not attracted much attention on Chinese social media this week, she added, and many young people in the Chinese mainland would prefer to travel to Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

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