From Monday, travelers into Hong Kong will have to undergo three days of home monitoring. If they test negative for COVID-19 after three days, they will be allowed into venues such as restaurants and bars. They must also undergo several mandatory PCR tests, including one on arrival, as well as on their second, fourth and sixth days in Hong Kong, coupled with daily antigen rapid tests every day for their first week.
Hong Kong’s easing of travel curbs sparked a rush for flight bookings, with airline Cathay Pacific’s website “experiencing high traffic” after the announcement was made. Visitors to the site had to wait in a virtual queue to enter.
The city's daily COVID-19 infections have fallen to below 6,000 cases a day, from over 10,000 daily cases early this month. A large majority are local infections.
For nearly two years, Hong Kong required overseas arrivals in the city to serve a period of mandatory quarantine in designated hotels. At one point, the city had among the world’s longest quarantine periods at 21 days of mandatory isolation.
Neighboring Taiwan is expected to do the same next month. This leaves mainland China as one of the only places in the world that will still require travelers to quarantine on arrival.
Hong Kong has for most of the pandemic aligned with China's "zero-COVID" strategy.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, Hong Kong authorities have imposed strict social distancing measures and locked down residential buildings with confirmed COVID-19 infections to mass-test residents.
As the rest of the world reopened borders, businesses urged Hong Kong authorities to come up with an exit strategy to the pandemic in order to remain competitive amid a brain drain as tens of thousands of residents left the city.
Several companies also moved their offices to countries like Singapore as they sought relief from the city's restrictions.
Singapore had eased travel curbs and relaxed coronavirus restrictions months before Hong Kong, sparking concerns that Hong Kong may lose out in competitiveness as an international financial center and regional business hub.
Lee said authorities will keep monitoring the epidemic situation in Hong Kong to determine if further relaxation is possible, adding he was “optimistic” that the loosening of requirements will be welcomed by those who wish to enter Hong Kong.
“If there are positive developments as we progress … there will be more room for us to do extra measures so that we can have more movement, more activities and more room for us to go about different (activities),” he said.
The easing of measures comes as Hong Kong prepares to hold several high-profile events, including the Rugby Sevens tournament in November and an international banking summit.
The Rugby Sevens is making a comeback in the city for the first time since the pandemic began. In a news conference Friday, organizers said that risk mitigation measures will be taken for the tournament, which includes making sure that all players and officials involved have at least two COVID-19 vaccinations.
Other measures taken include operating within a “competition bubble," which ensures that competing teams will be sequestered on arrival, during the tournament and until departure.
On arrival, teams will be transported directly from the airport to designated hotels and will have dedicated team transport and training venues.
Organizers said 10,000 Rugby Sevens tickets will go on sale to the public Sept. 28.
“The return of the Hong Kong Sevens means business is returning too. And I know we can’t wait for both to fill the stands, and the streets and shops, restaurants and hopefully bars as well,” said financial secretary Paul Chan at the Rugby Sevens news conference.
“The momentum will keep on building. And long beyond. There will be no stopping our many prestigious international events,” Chan said.
The relaxation of travel requirements drew optimistic reactions from some residents in the city.
“I think (reopening) has to be step-by-step, it’s positive,” said Samuel Tsang, a Hong Kong resident.
However, there are others who believe that three days of monitoring for arrivals is still an inconvenient measure.
“It’s too late. Everybody else has opened up for such a long time," said Eva Leung.
“The economy has become like this, no one is coming,” she said, adding that it's still a hassle, especially for business travelers who have to move around the city for work. "It’s still not convenient.”
AP news assistant Karmen Li contributed to this report.