Hong Kong Sevens must be a proper comeback party, or we should wait
- During the Sars epidemic, the government organised a series of events to announce to the world that Hong Kong was open for business
- The current proposal to hold the city’s flagship rugby event in closed-loop mode due to Covid-19 sends the wrong message
Tourists stayed away and Hongkongers steered clear of crowded places such as bars and restaurants. The second-quarter economic figures were a disaster.
The government of the day took active measures to soften the blow for individuals and businesses. The objective was to help them survive the hard times and be ready to participate in the recovery once the public health situation improved.
In parallel, the administration began to plan to “relaunch” the economy. It set aside HK$1 billion to pay for, or heavily subsidise, a programme of activities designed to persuade potential visitors and local residents that Hong Kong was safe to visit and live life normally.
The programme, which I spearheaded, was put together with the help of representatives from the community including the business sector. It comprised sporting events – a football match between Hong Kong’s football team and Liverpool featuring Michael Owen, and another against Real Madrid with star player David Beckham – and a series of concerts by top names like the Rolling Stones, Santana, Westlife, and Jose Carreras.
There was also a high-profile conference organised by a top business magazine, and various activities at the community level.
While the plan was being mapped out, it was agreed that nothing would be done until the WHO and CDC cancelled their travel advisories. It was no good Hong Kong claiming by itself that the city was safe, it needed endorsement by independent outside parties.
The Sevens engendered in all my children a love of sport; my daughter went on to represent Hong Kong as a member of the Girls Under 19 squad, which went on tour to Singapore. Believe me when I say there is no one on the face of the planet who wants to see the event back in Hong Kong more than me.
But there are some aspects of the planning for the event which I find deeply disturbing. This is not to denigrate the efforts of the Hong Kong Rugby Union, which is working its socks off to try to give us something to look forward to. But having to navigate around the government’s Covid-19 policies is leading to some absurd outcomes.
Hong Kong is the only city on the rugby circuit to have such a requirement. Fans will stay home to watch the event on television instead of coming here. That means only visitors who are already in town for other urgent reasons will be potential attendees, whereas they normally occupy half of the 40,000 seats.
The stadium capacity is expected to be no more than 85 per cent (hence 34,000). Patrons would have to show their vaccine pass to gain entry and – except when eating or drinking – to wear masks.
More importantly, what message are we sending the world about Hong Kong’s situation? In 2003, we were trumpeting the fact that the travel advisories had been lifted and the theme was “Hong Kong is back. We are still a great place to visit, come and see for yourself”.
This time there are no travel advisories imposed by outsiders, only the ones we are imposing on ourselves. The government’s own policies create the impression that “Hong Kong is not back, it’s dangerous, we don’t really want you here”. This is not the message we should be sending.
The choice is clear: we should only hold a proper Sevens when it can deliver the right message. If it is not possible to do so now, we should wait until it is.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises