Hong Kong’s dining scene enjoyed a spirited return to 90 per cent of pre-Covid business levels a day shy of the Lunar New Year as locals and tourists splashed out at large gatherings with family and friends for the first time in three years. Shoppers also ventured to Victoria Park to catch the last day of the city’s largest seasonal flower market, even as sellers spoke of an up to 60 per cent drop in sales from last year’s event. Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said many eateries were enjoying booming business with full bookings throughout the break, especially on Lunar New Year’s Eve, a day traditionally set aside for families to reunite over dinners. “I expect the catering industry could rake in about HK$360 million [US$45.9 million] on Friday and HK$380 million on Saturday,” he said. “With Hong Kong opening up and the stock prices climbing up, there is a rising consumer sentiment with people loosening their purse strings. The catering industry has restored 90 per cent of its pre-Covid business. I can feel that people are happy now.” John Lee extends Lunar New Year greetings to Hong Kong, eyes new start Residents and travellers alike have used the occasion to dine with relatives and friends following the city’s axing of restrictions last month, such as a vaccine pass requiring patrons to be fully inoculated or to seek an exemption to enter select premises, as well as a cap on the number of people per table at restaurants. Wong said people were also scrambling to book spring banquets in February and March, while demand for wedding venues was robust since the Year of the Rabbit was considered an auspicious time to get married. Ray Chui Man-wai, chairman of Kam Kee Holdings, which operates 44 restaurants, said his company was enjoying brisk trade as their venues were fully booked until Tuesday. “This year is the first time in three years amid the coronavirus pandemic that people, including the unvaccinated, can dine out freely with their families and friends. Many haven’t had a real family gathering for three years so they seize the chance today,” said Chui, who is also president of the Institute of Dining Art. David Leung Chi-wai, chairman of Seafood Delight Group, which encompasses 17 Chinese restaurants, said his outlets were all fully booked until Wednesday. “There has been a greater flow of customers. Our group’s business has returned to 90 per cent of pre-Covid levels,” he said. “I’ve observed an increasing number of mainland Chinese tourists coming to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Hong Kong. They usually bring in large luggage when they eat in our restaurants.” Branch manager Danny Yip, who runs U Banquet Group’s Kwun Tong outlet, said no spaces were available at his restaurant between January 21 and 26, with business soaring 60 per cent from last year. “This is a rare chance for families to get together, so they all jump on it,” he said. Asia celebrates first post-Covid Lunar New Year amid inflation woes Afternoon shoppers in Causeway Bay packed the streets leading to the Lunar New Year Fair, with some taking home items such as moth orchids, peach trees and lilies from the flower market. French teacher Michael Natalie, 50, said she had set her sights on buying a pot of white daffodils there, since the flower was common in her native France. While this was her second Lunar New Year in Hong Kong, it was her first time at the festive market. “It’s wonderful because of all the flowers, all kinds of orchids. And we don’t have the same thing in Europe,” she said. But those running stalls in Victoria Park said sales this year had been disappointing, despite the event following the government’s rollback of Covid-19 restrictions last month and the resumption of quarantine-free travel with the mainland on January 8. Veteran peach blossom seller Tam Chun, 73, said he expected to make a loss this time around as sales had fallen 40 per cent from 2021. The flower market last year was cancelled when Hong Kong underwent its fifth coronavirus wave. “This is the worst year ever in my 42 years [at the market]. Even when there were heavy downpours at a couple of previous fairs, those years did better than this one,” said Tam, who blamed a poor entrance layout for the drop in shoppers. Rita Chan, a trader looking to sell her discounted moth orchids, said this year’s sales had been the worst in a decade, with fewer visitors coming to the market and her business falling 60 per cent from two years ago. “In previous years we should be going home already at this hour,” she said. Hong Kong leader should take it slow in Year of the Rabbit, soothsayers advise Saturday also marked a day of travel for some. Immigration figures showed 114,169 people had left Hong Kong and another 43,973 had arrived by 9pm, compared with the 129,289 departures and 59,816 arrivals recorded a day earlier. By the morning of Lunar New Year’s Eve, some 77,000 spaces for Saturday were available at testing centres and another 100,000 spots for Sunday. Twelve of the city’s 85 testing centres on Saturday evening reached their daily limit and would not accept walk-ins, while all sites had spaces available the next day.