Hong Kong has lost its position as a global aviation hub due to China’s ultra-strict “dynamic zero COVID” policy, the head of the global airline industry’s trade association has said.
Speaking at an aviation conference in Qatar on Wednesday, International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General Willie Walsh said China’s pandemic restrictions had “devastated” the international financial centre and hammered flagship carrier Cathay Pacific.
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“Cathay Pacific is a shadow of its former self as a result. Hong Kong has lost its position as a global hub and will struggle to regain it because other hubs have taken advantage of it,” said Walsh, a former chief executive of British Airways and Aer Lingus, according to the Reuters news agency.
One of the world’s busiest gateways before the pandemic, Hong Kong International Airport handled just 591,000 passengers between April and June, compared with the 7.3 million passengers that passed through Singapore’s Changi Airport during the same period.
Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world still adhering to strict COVID-19 curbs, as authorities try to align with mainland China’s zero-tolerance strategy aimed at stamping out the virus at almost any cost.
Under Hong Kong’s current rules, all arrivals are required to undergo three days of hotel quarantine followed by a four-day period of medical surveillance that prohibits them from entering venues such as bars and restaurants.
The mandatory hotel quarantine period was seven days until last month and for a 14-month period during the pandemic stretched to as long as 21 days.
The COVID-19 curbs, along with a Beijing-led clamp down on rights and freedoms in the former British colony, have driven an exodus of residents and businesses from the financial hub, which for decades has branded itself as “Asia’s World City.”
More than 200,000 people left the city between 2020 and mid-2022, the biggest outflow on record.
Hong Kong’s leader John Lee said on Tuesday his government was conscious of the need to reconnect with the rest of the world and was “actively exploring” changes to the controversial quarantine policy.
Local media have reported that the government plans to scrap hotel quarantine in favour of seven days of medical surveillance, under which arrivals would still be restricted in their movements in the city.