By Farah Master and Twinnie Siu
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong's government has asked Japan to withdraw a COVID-19 restriction that requires passenger flights from the financial hub to land at only four designated Japanese airports, saying the decision will impact about 60,000 passengers.
The United States, India, Italy and Taiwan now require mandatory COVID-19 tests on travellers from China after Beijing's decision last month to lift stringent zero-COVID policies, fuelling a surge in cases across mainland China.
Hong Kong, home to more than 7 million people, is recording around 20,000 coronavirus cases daily but on Thursday lifted its COVID restrictions for the first time in three years.
Japan, which is a top travel destination for Hong Kong people, said it would limit flights from Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China to Tokyo's two airports, plus Osaka and Nagoya from Friday. The decision comes during a peak travel season and ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday which begins Jan. 22.
"It is understood that around 250 outbound flights of Hong Kong airlines will be affected between December 30, 2022 and the end of January 2023, affecting around 60,000 passengers," the government said in a statement late on Wednesday.
City leader John Lee said the government had indicated to the Japanese government it was disappointed.
"We think that Hong Kong people should be allowed to use not just these four airports," Lee said.
Flights of Hong Kong airlines can still carry passengers back to Hong Kong from various airports in Japan, the government said, to "ensure the smooth return of Hong Kong people from Japan and to minimise the impact to Hong Kong travellers caused by the incident."
Hong Kong's flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said in a statement on Thursday it would continue to operate flights to Japan, although it would reduce these to 65 per week, down 20% from its planned schedule for Jan 2023.
HK Express, which is owned by Cathay, said in a separate statement it would only be able to operate 60 scheduled flights per week to destinations in Japan due to the restrictions, prompting the cancellation of 41 flights from Hong Kong to Japan in January 2023.
Hong Kong Airlines and Peach Aviation announced they would cancel some flight routes because of the rules.
China in December began dismantling the world's strictest COVID regime of lockdowns and extensive testing, putting its battered economy on course for a complete re-opening next year.
The lifting of restrictions, following widespread protests against them, means COVID is spreading largely unchecked and likely infecting millions of people a day, according to some international health experts.
(Reporting by Farah Master and Twinnie Siu; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Stephen Coates)
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