Hong Kong is giving away 500,000 airline tickets in an effort to woo tourists back to the region.
Airlines have been releasing the tickets in stages since March. They were made available to Europeans in May.
The city removed the last of its strict travel restrictions in March, including all pre-departure and post-arrival quarantine and testing. Its mask mandate ended after being in place for over 2.5 years - one of the longest of any country.
Now Hong Kong is hoping to bounce back from the massive impact the pandemic had on its tourism industry. And part of its plan involves giving away 500,00 airline tickets worth more than €250 million.
Hong Kong received 56 million visitors in 2019 - over seven times its population - before the pandemic began. But its strict COVID restrictions kept visitors away over the past three years, devastating the tourism sector and its economy. The city’s GDP last year fell 3.5 per cent from 2021, according to the government’s provisional data.
How does Hong Kong's free ticket scheme work?
The giveaway began on 1 March and is set to last for about six months, with tickets released in phases.
The free tickets were initially bought to support airlines during the pandemic.
65 per cent of the tickets are being distributed by Hong Kong-based airlines Cathay Pacific, HK Express, Hong Kong Airlines and Greater Bay Airlines through their direct channels or their agents.
The remaining tickets are reserved for tourism-related sectors to support inbound tourism and promote Hong Kong.
The giveaway takes various forms, ranging from lucky draws, to first-come-first-served, to buy one, get one free.
Who can apply for Hong Kong's free flight tickets?
Tickets have been distributed gradually on the airlines' overseas platforms starting with Southeast Asian countries in March, followed by mainland China in April, and Northeast Asia, Europe and other markets from May. Giveaways for Japan and Taiwan will launch in June and July.
You can register for participation via Hong Kong Airport's website and the airlines' own websites.
All tickets are round-trip economy class, and winners will be responsible for paying all related surcharges, fees and taxes.
The ticket limit has already been reached for Europe, with the final flights being given away between 10-16 May.
Hong Kong gave away 3,260 tickets from London, 900 from Frankfurt, 380 from Zurich, 950 from Paris and 350 from Madrid. For those who entered the quiz, winners will be announced via email on 5 June.
Registration is still open for entrants from the US and Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and South Africa.
More tickets will be released for mainland China in the third quarter of the campaign.
A further 80,000 free outbound air tickets will be given to Hong Kong residents in July, with more reserved for those living in the Greater Bay Area. In total, more than 700,000 tickets will be given away.
What discounts are available in Hong Kong?
The free flights are part of the wider $2 billion (€1.8 bn) 'Hello Hong Kong' campaign, which also provides visitors with special offers and vouchers among other incentives in the city.
One million vouchers worth over HKD100 (€11.60) each will provide discounts on food, drinks, transport, hotels, retail and attractions. They will be distributed at tourist inquiry counters located at four border checkpoints from 5pm on 2 February, according to Time Out Hong Kong.
The city will also host more than 250 events and festivals throughout 2023, from the Hong Kong Marathon to the Clockenflap music festival, Art Basel and Hong Kong Rugby Sevens.
What are the entry requirements for Hong Kong?
Hong Kong had some of the strictest rules for travellers throughout the pandemic.
The city largely aligned itself with mainland China’s 'zero-COVID' strategy and has relaxed its entry rules months slower than rivals such as Singapore, Japan and Taiwan.
In September, mandatory quarantine on arrival was dropped. But even after Hong Kong reopened its border with mainland China in January, tourism recovery was sluggish.
Now, the rules have been relaxed fully. The Hong Kong government advises inbound travellers to conduct a rapid antigen test on arrival and again on day five of their visit. But if you test positive, you are no longer required to isolate.
Since 6 February, proof of vaccination is no longer required for non-Hong Kong residents. This means you do not need to be fully vaccinated, or show proof of vaccination to enter Hong Kong.
You are no longer required to test or quarantine when travelling from Hong Kong to mainland China. However, if you have visited a third country within the last seven days, a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of arrival in the mainland is required.
Masks are no longer enforced on public transport, indoors or outdoors, though they may still be required in some high-risk settings. This was the city's last remaining COVID-19 restriction, and was previously enforced with HK$5,000 (€600) fines.
Hong Kong fully reopens border with mainland China
On 6 February, all travel restrictions between Hong Kong and mainland China were dropped.
Until then a negative PCR test was required, as well as pre-registration to get permission to travel via land.
At a press conference Hong Kong's Chief Executive John Lee said, "A full opening of the border means, firstly, that there will be no limit on the number of people at all border crossings, no need to make prior reservations, and you can travel freely as you want.
"Secondly, the requirement for pre-entry COVID-19 testing will be abolished, so that COVID and other tests will no longer be required, and (people) are free to enter and leave. Thirdly, all immigration control points will be opened."
Virgin Atlantic stops flights to Hong Kong after 30 years
The closure of Russian airspace after the invasion of Ukraine means some airlines won’t be resuming services to the city.
Virgin Atlantic announced in autumn that it would be closing its offices in Hong Kong after 30 years. Flights to the city were suspended when the pandemic hit and had been due to return as part of the 2023 summer schedule.
The carrier made the decision to pull out of the Asian travel hub altogether. Several factors contributed to the decision including the closure of Russian airspace adding at least an hour to journey times.
Customers who had booked to travel to Hong Kong with Virgin Atlantic from March 2023 have been offered a refund, voucher or the option to rebook on an alternative route with the airline.
Taiwan is also incentivising tourists to visit
Taiwan recently launched its own scheme to boost visitor numbers. It is offering to pay tourists just over €150 to holiday there this year.
The East Asian country is seeking to welcome six million tourists in 2023, and hopes lining their wallets with NT$5,000 (€158) will help win them over.
Announcing the proposal in February, Minister Wang Kwo-tsai explained that the tourists’ spending money will be delivered digitally and can be put towards accommodation and other costs in the country.
He did not specify when the scheme would start.