Hong Kong authorities are doubling down on efforts to promote local tourism, according to industry insiders, with plans to offer rewards such as free tours and staycations to more than 20,000 qualifying residents as part of a HK$20 million (US$2.6 million) drive coinciding with the loosening of strict social-distancing rules. The Hong Kong Tourism Board confirmed it was preparing a fresh slate of promotions on Tuesday as the tally of new Covid-19 cases in the city dropped to single digits for a second consecutive day, with sources saying a ban on local tours was likely to be lifted in the near future after anti-pandemic social-distancing arrangements were eased on Thursday. The board said the new round of offerings would be similar to ones that were unveiled last year, but which had to be halted as the city tightened restrictions amid a worsening fourth wave of infections. “In addition to tours, the board is planning to include the hotel sector in the new round, which will follow the model of the first round of activities to encourage local spending and generate a chain of consumption,” executive director Dane Cheng Ting-yat said, without specifying a date or details. Hong Kong to ease Covid-19 social-distancing rules for first time in months Sources, however, said the programme was expected to include hotel staycations among its offerings for the first time. For example, Hongkongers who spent a certain amount on shopping could be awarded a free local tour or hotel stay, they said. The global travel industry is at a near standstill, and local businesses that rely on tourism have been hit especially hard as foreign visitors to the city dried up. Hong Kong recorded only 4,370 arrivals in January, a 99.9 per cent year-on-year slump, according to the board’s provisional data. Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said that under the second round of its “Free Tour” programme, the board would provide for 20,000 residents to enjoy local sightseeing outings free of charge, with services provided by 100 travel agencies. “It’s more like the first round, but the number of slots has been doubled,” Yiu said. The board first rolled out the “Free Tour” programme in October, with residents eligible to take part after spending at least HK$800 at bricks-and-mortar retail and dining outlets in Hong Kong. Participants could then redeem their receipts for a travel experience in November and December, with fees for a tour guide, transport, a meal and basic insurance covered. A total of 10,000 spots were provided by about 50 travel agencies, but the programme was suspended in early December when the government tightened social-distancing rules. Yiu said in the coming round, as in the first, the board would pay travel agencies HK$500 for each customer they served, with each business allocated a quota of 200 spots. He estimated the board’s subsidy costs would jump from HK$5 million to around HK$10 million. Hong Kong hotel union blasts lack of Covid-19 unemployment aid “In the past, there were just about 50 quotas for travel agencies. The demand for quotas already outstripped its supply. I believe even if [the board] allows 100 travel agencies to join the scheme, the supply will still be tight,” he said. Tommy Tam Kwong-shun, of the Society of IATA Passenger Agents (SIPA), a coalition of the largest travel agents in Hong Kong, said he had already received many inquiries from members about the tour programme. He said he had learned that the board would budget at least HK$20 million for the scheme, including for marketing costs. Tam said officials had also talked with the sector’s representatives about local tours being exempted from rules limiting public gatherings to just two people so as to allow them to get up and running again, but no exact date for such a measure was provided. “It seems they want to wait and see the pandemic situation after the reopening of gyms and beauty parlours,” he said. From Thursday, all sport venues, fitness centres, and beauty and massage parlours will be allowed to reopen, while restaurants will be able to serve up to four people at a table until 10pm – a step up from the current two-person limit and ban on dine-in services after 6pm. But operators will have to follow new measures to prevent the spread of the disease, including requiring patrons to either scan the government’s Covid-19 risk-exposure app “Leave Home Safe” or provide their personal details. They also have to arrange for their staff to get a coronavirus test every two weeks. Tam said it was very likely tour participants would need to follow similar measures, such as scanning the app when they boarded a coach or visited a restaurant. Tourism workers could also be required to get tested every 14 days, he added.