Hong Kong is forecast to grow economically next year after the city's leader announced the removal of nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on international arrivals and said it would reopen its border with China.
But experts say the coronavirus pandemic and geopolitics have hampered Hong Kong's international status after nearly three years of global isolation.
Last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee announced that people arriving in Hong Kong are free from COVID-19 restrictions.
International passengers can now travel freely upon arrival. Previous requirements meant arrivals were not allowed to enter places such as restaurants and bars for the first three days, monitoring their health as a precaution against catching the coronavirus. The government also scrapped its COVID-19 tracking media app that granted users access to venues such as restaurants, gyms and salons, although some designated venues will still require vaccination records for those who wish to enter.
Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, said Hong Kong's arrivals could still be hesitant to enter.
"Removing most entry restrictions is a big step forward, but as experience proved in Southeast Asia and South Korea, it is not until on-arrival testing is eliminated that confidence will return for inbound travel,' Bowerman told VOA. 'Hong Kong is on a holding pattern, where travelers will likely wait until testing is removed before committing to travel to Hong Kong.'
COVID-19 background - China reopening
Arrivals must still be subject to a mandatory COVID-19 PCR test on arrival and one on Day Two, while the city's face mask mandate is still in place.
Hong Kong initially closely followed China's "zero-COVID" strategy, implementing strict policies such as vaccine passes, curfews and bans on group gatherings. But the territory has gradually eased restrictions as the spread of the highly transmissible omicron variants has been difficult to control.
Despite cases roaring in China, Lee announced Saturday that by mid-January Hong Kong's border with the mainland would reopen.
"Hong Kong relies heavily on tourism from mainland China - which accounted for 78% of its visitors in 2018, so it would need China to reopen the border for any significant uplift to occur," Bowerman previously told VOA.
Visitor numbers low
Hong Kong first opened borders to non-residents May 1 and then, in September, removed quarantines for arrivals. But with much of the world opening completely, Hong Kong hasn't seen anything close to the number of arrivals it would welcome in pre-pandemic times.
This year has seen arrivals into Hong Kong remain low in comparison to before the pandemic, with only 330,223 visitors through the end of October. The city usually enjoys tens of millions of arrivals per year, with more than 65 million arrivals in 2018.
Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for the Asia Pacific region for Natixis, a French investment bank, said the removal of remaining restrictions for arrivals is a "game changer."
"The announcement [removing] "0+3" is a game changer for Hong Kong. We are going to revise our growth projection. We are at -3 [%] this year at least. We're going to see a rebound of at least 3%, possibly 4%. So, I can see about 3.5% [economic] growth [for 2023]. That's to these measures," Garcia-Herrero told VOA.
But trade wars and political differences between the U.S. and China in recent years have affected Hong Kong's status as a global financial center. Relations also have soured between Washington and Beijing after Hong Kong authorities cracked down on pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Garcia-Herrero said geopolitics means investors and businesses are relying less on Hong Kong as an investment hub.
"There is also export ban sanctions, even if Hong Kong is a different jurisdiction, the U.S. also applies these sanctions,' Garcia-Herrero said. 'Companies in the light of Hong Kong are being perceived much more like the mainland [China] and not only by observers, this affects investors' positions. Some are leaving for Singapore. I wouldn't say financial institutions are just shutting and leaving, but they are reducing operations and finding what they can do elsewhere is less risky. It is a geopolitical risk not a competitive risk.'
Hong Kong's international status 'is a different ballgame,' Garcia-Herrero said. 'To me, a global financial center like London, New York - the point is there is a vast variety in these two stock exchanges. That's not the case in Hong Kong anymore and I doubt it will be. For me, Hong Kong will remain increasingly this offshore center for the mainland.'
Long time coming
Business owners, residents and foreign expatriates in Hong Kong have criticized Hong Kong's long-winded COVID-19 rules, complaining the city would lose its competitiveness and status as a global city.
The city has already seen an accelerated exodus of a number of businesses and expatriates. Data shows Hong Kong's population has declined significantly, with more than 113,000 residents leaving the city in the past year alone, the biggest-ever drop since record keeping began more than 60 years ago.
But Dr. David Owens, a family physician and honorary assistant clinical professor at Hong Kong University, argued the city could have moved to open earlier to prevent further damage.
"Hong Kong border restrictions, along with other COVID policies have had no grounding in science or evidence for many months,' he told VOA. 'With other COVID regulations, Hong Kong border policies will actively harm public health due to the damage to both the economy and trust in public health institutions.
'I see no impact on Hong Kong from opening the international border,' he said. 'This was always a political, not medical, decision, which could have been made months ago.'