Hong Kong says it will give away 500,000 airline tickets, worth HK$2bn ($254.8m; £224.3m), as it tries to boost its Covid-hit tourism industry.
The city rolled back several of its coronavirus rules in recent weeks.
However, major airlines are struggling to get their flight schedules back to pre-pandemic levels.
On Wednesday, British airline Virgin Atlantic said it will stop operating in Hong Kong because of issues linked to the Ukraine war.
“The airport authority will finalise the arrangement with airline companies. Once the government announces it will remove all Covid-19 restrictions for inbound travellers, we’ll roll out the advertising campaigns for the free air tickets,” Dane Cheng, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board said.
Mr Cheng added that the free tickets, which were bought to support Hong Kong airlines during the pandemic, will be distributed next year to inbound and outbound travellers by the city’s airport authority.Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic said it would close its office in Hong Kong and no longer fly between the city and London Heathrow after 30 years in the Asian aviation hub.
“Significant operational complexities due to the ongoing Russian airspace closure have contributed to the commercial decision not to resume flights in March 2023 as planned”, the British carrier said.
The airline, which was founded by billionaire Richard Branson, halted flights to Hong Kong last December.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused several airlines to suspend flights or take longer routes to avoid flying over the area.
“We’re very sorry for the disappointment caused to our loyal customers on this route and anyone booked to travel from March 2023 will be offered a refund, voucher or the option to rebook on an alternative Virgin Atlantic route,” Virgin added.
Until recently Hong Kong had some of the world’s toughest rules as it followed China’s zero Covid policies.
Last month, Hong Kong’s government said it would no longer require people arriving in the city to go into hotel quarantine, or show a negative Covid test before boarding flights to Hong Kong.
Now, in the three days after arriving travellers have to monitor themselves for possible infection. The news sparked a rush for flight tickets to and from Hong Kong.
Prudence Lai, senior analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International thinks the offer of free air tickets will help speed up the process of mending Hong Kong’s reputation as a popular travel destination.
“The pre-Covid status of Hong Kong represents the market potential of a full recovery,” she told the BBC.
“However, this is highly dependent on when mainland Chinese tourists will return, as mainland China contributes to more than half of Hong Kong’s inbound arrivals and travel receipts,” Ms Lai added.
Hong Kong had 184,000 visitors in the first eight months of this year. That marks a significant drop in tourist numbers compared to before the pandemic – 56m people visited the city in 2019 as a whole.
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