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Why Hong Kong Is Giving Away Half a Million Airline Tickets

Hong Kong will hand out 500,000 air tickets to bring in much-needed visitors as part of a global publicity campaign unveiled on Thursday.

The city’s leader John Lee announced the giveaway at the launch of the Hello Hong Kong campaign at a briefing, saying it was “probably the world’s biggest welcome ever.” Lee highlighted a number of events coming up including the Rugby Sevens and city marathon in a speech given in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

The government is seeking to revive the economy and repair Hong Kong’s global image which was damaged by often-violent protests in 2019, the imposition of tough security laws in 2020 and three years of self-imposed isolation during the pandemic. Gross domestic product shrank 3.5% last year, its third contraction in four years.

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The tickets will be distributed through Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., its budget carrier HK Express as well as Hong Kong Airlines International Holdings Ltd., Fred Lam, chief executive officer of the city’s Airport Authority, said at the briefing. The giveaway will begin at the start of March and last six months, he said, adding there will be different ways to win tickets, such as a lottery system and two-for-one purchases.

Hong Kong received some 605,000 visitors last year as the city slowly dropped its Covid restrictions, up from 91,000 in 2021, according to the local tourism board. That compares with almost 56 million in 2019 before the pandemic hit.

The ticket giveaway may pressure airlines. Cathay Pacific’s flight capacity at the end of last year was 32% of its pre-Covid level. Hong Kong was Asia’s busiest international airport prior to Covid. The Airport Authority purchased the tickets in 2020 as part of a HK$2 billion ($255 million) rescue package for the airline industry.

The city will also hand out 80,000 air tickets to Hong Kong residents in the summer, and another 80,000 to residents of the Greater Bay Area, Lam said.

Moves are underway to boost the number of visitors from the rest of the country. Testing requirements and a quota system for mainland Chinese visitors are set to be dropped, while three more border crossings with the mainland will reopen as early as Monday, the South China Morning Post reported. The border reopened last month for the first time in three years.

Natixis SA estimates Hong Kong’s economy lost $27 billion in potential growth due to the effects of the pandemic and the city’s strict Covid curbs.

Hong Kong’s only remaining pandemic-era restriction is mandatory mask wearing in public places. The city’s leader Lee said this week he hopes to remove the mask mandate when the winter surge is over, without giving dates.

— With assistance from Jill Disis, Danny Lee and Olivia Tam.