Hong Kong’s air passenger traffic could take 18 months to two years to return to pre-pandemic levels, even with the launch of the government’s global tourism campaign, the head of the Airport Authority has said, adding that the body has been lobbying foreign airlines to resume flights to the city. Airport Authority CEO Fred Lam Tin-fuk on Sunday said he expected daily arrivals to reach 160,000, or 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, in December. “During the worst times, we only had a few hundred passengers per day. Before the pandemic, we once had 200,000 daily passengers,” Lam told a radio programme. Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said he remained cautious about the economy despite the full resumption on Monday of quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and mainland China, which was set to help the city’s recovery. The government launched an ambitious campaign last week to attract tourists to the city after three years of Covid-19 curbs. The promotional drive includes 700,000 free airline tickets, as well as spending vouchers and special events. Lam revealed that 70,000 to 80,000 visitors currently arrived at Hong Kong airport each day, amounting to 40 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. “We think we need at least 18 months to two years to return to pre-pandemic levels,” he said, adding that the prediction was based on the experience elsewhere including Heathrow Airport in London and Singapore’s Changi Airport. Hello Hong Kong: how do I get free airline tickets and what else is on offer? Pandemic-related restrictions imposed on international airlines and measures adopted by other countries led to a significant reduction in the number of flights to and from Hong Kong. Lam said the authority had formed a team to liaise with international carriers on the resumption of flights to the city. “Foreign airlines cannot simply resume flights immediately. Instead, they usually [review the flight schedule] two times a year, in the summer and the winter. Many airlines have said the flights can only return after March,” he noted. “But we think we cannot just sit and wait. These airlines have to manage many international flights and Hong Kong may not be their priority, so I set up a team last year to knock on their doors.” In September last year, the Board of Airline Representatives of Hong Kong, a coalition of more than 70 carriers flying to and from the city, had warned that Hong Kong could be left out of its plans for next year unless the government provided a clear timeline on when quarantine rules for travellers and aircrew would be cancelled. Hong Kong in December lifted all restrictions on arrivals after almost three years of isolation amid strict pandemic curbs. Forty-eight out of 110 foreign airlines that flew to Hong Kong before the start of the pandemic in 2020 had stopped doing so because of the city’s stringent restrictions and the need to redirect resources to countries where demand was increasing, the coalition said earlier. Lam said demand for international airlines had often exceeded the airport’s capacity in the past, but this was no longer the case since the pandemic. Hong Kong vows to win back tourists with global campaign on back of eased Covid curbs A total of 700,000 free airline tickets will be given to travellers around the world between March 1 and September as part of the government’s “Hello Hong Kong” tourism campaign. About 500,000 will be provided to overseas visitors, 80,000 to Hongkongers and another 80,000 Greater Bay Area residents. Lam said a number of overseas media outlets had covered the ticket giveaway and he expected this to bring “positive attention” for the city and attract 1,500,000 visitors. “We think the number of free tickets should be striking in order to reach the ideal outcome for promotion,” he said. “After the pandemic, the whole world has been scrambling to attract tourists. We need to catch the attention of these tourists and international media.” Opening of borders no silver bullet for Hong Kong’s retail sector: economists Meanwhile, finance chief Chan said that the full resumption of quarantine-free travel between Hong Kong and the mainland on Monday was expected to expedite the post-pandemic recovery of various businesses and the tourism sector, while cross-border passenger and cargo traffic would increase steadily. “It will also bring a more positive and optimistic outlook for the overall economy of Hong Kong,” he said on his blog. But he warned the city should remain cautious about the economy, citing a 28.9 per cent drop in Hong Kong’s value of total exports last December. “It is the biggest drop within a month in 68 years, and the eighth consecutive month of decline,” he said. “But the value of online sales alone reached HK$34.6 billion last year, up 21 per cent from the previous year … It reflects that as long as we endeavour and seek new opportunities in the midst of changes, the present situation can be stabilised and the future will open up to us.” Looking ahead in 2023, Chan said although the economy would be better than last year, the external environment remained uncertain and challenging, and efforts were necessary to consolidate the “hard-earned positive” momentum. Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said Hong Kong was late in reopening to tourists compared with other places, and stressed the importance of making an all-out effort to attract visitors. Yeung added it was difficult to predict how long it would take for the number of tourists to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels, when about 60 million visitors came to the city each year. He said it took some places a year to reach 70 per cent after the lifting of border restrictions.