Hong Kong (AP) - Hong Kong will give away air tickets and vouchers to woo tourists back to the international financial hub, racing to catch up with other popular travel destinations in a fierce regional competition.
During the pandemic, the city largely aligned itself with mainland China's "zero-COVID" strategy and has relaxed its entry rules months slower than rivals such as Singapore, Japan and Taiwan. Even after it reopened its border with mainland China in January, tourism recovery was sluggish.
On Thursday, Chief Executive John Lee launched a tourism campaign "Hello Hong Kong," saying the city will offer 500,000 free air tickets to welcome tourists from around the world in what he called "probably the world's biggest welcome ever".
"Hong Kong is now seamlessly connected to the mainland of China and the whole international world and there will be no isolation, no quarantine," he said at a ceremony. "This is the perfect timing for tourists, business travelers, and investors from near and far to come and say, 'Hello, Hong Kong.'"
Under the campaign, most of the plane tickets - worth 2 billion Hong Kong dollars ($255 million) - will come from three Hong Kong-based airlines through various promotional activities, including lucky draws, "buy one, get one free" promotions and games. The project will begin in March and last about six months, said Fred Lam, CEO of the Airport Authority.
"We hope those who secure the air tickets can bring two or three more relatives and friends to the city. Although we are just giving away 500,000 air tickets, we believe this can help bring Hong Kong over 1.5 million visitors," Lam said.
The airlines will distribute the tickets in phases, with the Southeast Asian markets set to benefit in the first stage, he said.
An additional 80,000 air tickets will be given away to Hong Kong residents in the summer, Lam said. Those living in the Greater Bay Area will also benefit from the policy that offers over 700,000 tickets in total. The Greater Bay Area is a Chinese government initiative to link Hong Kong with neighboring mainland cities, including the technology and finance hub of Shenzhen and the manufacturing powerhouses of Dongguan and Foshan.
Visitors can also enjoy special offers and vouchers among other incentives in the city, Lee said.
Hong Kong received 56 million visitors in 2019 - over seven times its population - before the pandemic began. But its strict COVID-19 restrictions have been keeping visitors away over the past three years, devastating the tourism sector and its economy. The city's GDP last year fell 3.5 % from 2021, according to the government's provisional data.
In the past few months, it finally dropped its mandatory hotel quarantine rule and PCR tests for incoming travelers, resulting in a slight increase in arrival figures. Still, its 2022 visitor numbers were just 1% of the 2019 level.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the program was launched on Thursday, not Wednesday.