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Travel bubbles: commerce minister sounds cautious note on Hongkongers’ holiday plans

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 6/7/2020 Kanis Leung kanis.leung@scmp.com
a group of people in a store: The departure terminal at Hong Kong International Airport wears a deserted look amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: May Tse © SCMP The departure terminal at Hong Kong International Airport wears a deserted look amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: May Tse

Hongkongers' hopes of spending their summer holiday abroad are still hanging in the balance, the commerce minister has told the Post, even though the city has planned to form a travel bubble with Thailand.

In an exclusive interview, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah struck a cautious note on the possibility of forming travel bubbles with countries that have successfully contained the coronavirus during the peak travel season.

When a travel bubble is formed between Hong Kong and another region, city residents with a valid health certificate stating they are free of the coronavirus will be exempt from mandatory quarantine while visiting that destination.

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"It's hard to say. If both sides are satisfied (with the conditions), I think individual small bubbles may be created. But they will not be so extensive," Yau said.

He added he hoped Thailand would be part of the small bubbles Hong Kong wanted to create, but he did not specify a date for rolling out the arrangement.

Hong Kong's tourism has been paralysed since February when all but three of the city's border checkpoints were closed to contain the pandemic.

Edward Yau wearing a suit and tie: Commerce chief Edward Yau says he does not think international borders will reopen any time soon. Photo: Warton Li © Provided by South China Morning Post Commerce chief Edward Yau says he does not think international borders will reopen any time soon. Photo: Warton Li

The city's arrival figures slumped 88.2 per cent year-on-year in the first five months of 2020 to 3.5 million, wracked by a double whammy of anti-government protests and the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic was still raging across the world, Yau said he did not see any immediate loosening of global lockdowns.

"I don't think any immediate reopening of the boundaries or border (check)points will take place, particularly when the pandemic is still hitting the world very hard," he said.

Call to form 'travel bubbles' with neighbours that have pandemic under control

As of Sunday, at least 11.2 million people had been infected with the virus globally and more than 528,000 had died, the largest number of cases being in the United States, Brazil and Russia.

Hong Kong has so far recorded 1,268 Covid-19 cases, with seven fatalities.

Last Monday, the Thai government announced its decision to set up a special cross-border travel arrangement with five economies, including Hong Kong.

From last Wednesday, a handful of short-stay business travellers from Hong Kong have been allowed into Thailand and they will need to be tested for Covid-19 before departure and on arrival, according to Xinhua news agency.

The protocol Hong Kong proposed (for forming travel bubbles) is very simple " 100 per cent pre-departure testing by mutually recognised laboratories
Edward Yau, commerce minister

The Hong Kong government had earlier said a team would start discussing the travel arrangements with Thai authorities in the coming week or two, raising hopes that both sides might try to work out a quota system to allow tourists to visit each other's regions without having to undergo mandatory quarantine.

Yau said the city had been carefully picking its travel bubble partners. Key considerations included the pandemic situation at the destinations, the foreign government's ability to contain the contagion, and its public health protocol.

"The protocol Hong Kong proposed is very simple " 100 per cent pre-departure testing by mutually recognised laboratories," he said.

"How many places have the ability to carry out such tests? They have to be able to do it and have to make these tests commercially available."

He said Thailand and Hong Kong were willing to explore an arrangement because their pandemic situations were comparable.

Thailand has been a popular holiday destination among Hongkongers. Over the past five years, nearly 900,000 Hongkongers visited the country every year on average. More than 500,000 Thais visit Hong Kong every year.

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Hong Kong is also forming a travel bubble with Macau and Guangdong.

But in June, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said authorities would have to overcome some technical issues before the travel bubble could be formed. The Macau government also reportedly said local gaming and integrated resort operators should prepare for the borders to remain closed during this year's summer holiday period.

As the tourism industry went into a standstill worldwide because of the pandemic, local tourism officials looked to the domestic market to help the industry ride out the storm.

Yau said local tourism might focus on themes such as enjoying vegetarian food or other cheap packages that proved popular in the past.

Hong Kong authorities are also in talks to create a travel bubble with Macau and Guangdong. Photo: Getty Images © Provided by South China Morning Post Hong Kong authorities are also in talks to create a travel bubble with Macau and Guangdong. Photo: Getty Images

The trade could also seize opportunities and create new experiences by repackaging the natural and historical resources in Hong Kong, he said.

"There are already a lot of things available in green tourism or geotourism," he said.

"These things have always been here. Just that in the past, there were other easier ways (to do business), so some people chose to earn money that way. If we work well during the current period, words will spread. Other visitors to Hong Kong will also follow the style."

He said tourists would not come in big groups soon and the city would have to look for options rather than branding itself as a shopping centre or a food paradise.

Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said he was not hopeful that residents would be able to travel overseas in July and August, because various travel bubble details were still in the making and timelines had not been released yet.

But Yiu said the trade wanted to find a testing point as soon as possible, so the authorities could find out whether travel bubbles would be popular and whether there were cross-infection risks.

"We can only make a review after a bubble is created," he said.

He suggested if a bubble could run smoothly for a week or two, the authorities could consider giving travel quotas to tourists such as tour groups.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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