Hong Kong will give away half a million plane tickets. Here’s who can get them first

Hong Kong’s new global promotional campaign will “kickstart” the city’s reopening to international travelers, the Hong Kong Tourism Board told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Friday. 

As part of the “Hello Hong Kong” campaign, which was launched on Thursday, 500,000 air tickets will be given away over the next six months, starting in March.

The tickets will be given out through three Hong Kong’s carriers — Cathay Pacific, HK Express and Hong Kong Airlines. 

The free tickets are part of the HK$2 billion ($255 milion) relief package that the government offered to airlines in 2020, during the height of the pandemic.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board is also investing a minimum of HK$100 million in the promotion of the campaign’s initial phase, it said at the launch ceremony.

But Hong Kong still faces a “dilemma” — its infrastructure has some catching up to do to accommodate the increase in visitors, said Dane Cheng, the tourism board’s executive director.

“I think this dilemma, we have actually been seeing from other markets and destinations when they started to reopen in the last year or so. It’s difficult to catch up … particularly for the airlines, the airports and even hotels,” he told CNBC. 

“[But] you want to kickstart and … tell the world in a clear message that Hong Kong and then mainland — we have finally reopened.”

How the tickets are allocated

The ticket giveaway will be phased: It will start with Southeast Asian markets, followed by mainland China and North Asia, and lastly, other parts of the world. 

Some 80,000 tickets have also been reserved for Hong Kong residents which authorities aim to give out in the summer.

The number of tickets for each region was based on “traffic shares” and visitor numbers from before the pandemic, said Cheng.

Fred Lam, the CEO of Hong Kong’s airport authority, also expects the free tickets to have multiplying effects on the number of visitors.

“We hope those who received the tickets will bring 2-3 more friends and family with them [to Hong Kong],” according to CNBC’s translations of Lam’s comments at the campaign launch ceremony.

“Even though we are only giving out 500,000 air tickets, we believe it will bring in more than 1.5 million incoming tourists,” Lam added. That’s about 10% of the total number of visitors expected during the campaign period.

As for how visitors can get their hands on these free tickets, it will depend on “local market regulations and customs,” he said.

“[That] could include large-scale lucky draws, giving it out through a first-come-first serve basis, offering buy-on-get-one free tickets, or through game participations,” Lam said.

‘Very clearly reopened’ 

While the rest of the world steadily moved to reopen early last year, Hong Kong closely followed mainland China’s tough zero-Covid policy, and it was only in late 2022 that it began to relax some of its restrictions

We are the last one but we are very clearly reopened with no restrictions,” Cheng told CNBC. 

All international travelers are still required to test negative in a pre-departure Covid-19 test, however.

Mask-wearing in Hong Kong is still mandatory on public transport, as well as indoor and outdoor public places. 

On Friday, China said cross-border travel with Hong Kong and Macao would fully resume from Feb. 6, scrapping mandatory pre-departure tests and lifting arrival quotas, according to a Reuters report.

“I think it’s very clear that the Hong Kong government and also our mainland central government has been very prudent and they [made] it very clear that everything wants to be resumed in an orderly and progressive manner,” said Cheng. 

He added that before the pandemic, Hong Kong had “over 25 million overnight visitors” each year, and it will take the city time to “get back” those numbers.

Return of MICE events in Hong Kong 

Cheng said the past two to three years were “difficult” for Hong Kong’s MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences & exhibitions) industry, which brought in more than 1.6 million overseas visitors in 2019, before the pandemic. 

“The last year or so, other countries and cities and destinations have started opening up and of course we have some wonderful events that have been in Hong Kong for years,” said Cheng. 

“Anchor events [were] moving out and they say sorry, ‘We’re going to other places in Southeast Asia, Middle East,’ or some just basically postpone or defer.”

However, he said the city is now “confident” and “looking forward to receiving visitors” again.

That can be seen through its “Hello Hong Kong” campaign, which has a 2023 lineup of more than 250 events and festivals — including the Hong Kong Marathon, the Clockenflap music festival and Hong Kong Rugby Sevens. 

There are also more than 100 international MICE events planned for the year, said the city’s tourism board. 

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