Coronavirus: Hong Kong hotels struggling as government U-turn leaves travellers racing to rebook rooms

·5-min read

Hong Kong’s quarantine hotels were struggling to accommodate customer bookings after the government announced plans to tighten Covid-19 isolation rules, with different sectors calling for more rooms to be made available.

Travellers also vented their anger in social media groups on Tuesday, with their ire focused on the impact on travel bookings and quarantine times.

The sudden policy change has moved 15 more countries, including the United States and France, onto a list of high-risk countries from the existing medium-risk category from Friday.

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Many of these travellers could previously have shortened their quarantine to just seven days if they were fully vaccinated and obtained a positive antibody test result in Hong Kong. But a policy U-turn has left many facing 21 days indoors.

The government late on Tuesday said anyone flying into Hong Kong from countries in the “medium-risk” category would have to undergo at least 14 days of quarantine starting from Friday, scrapping a plan to shorten the period for those who test positive for Covid-19 antibodies.

A traveller arrives at the Sheraton Hong Kong in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the city’s quarantine hotels. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
A traveller arrives at the Sheraton Hong Kong in Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the city’s quarantine hotels. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

In a letter to relevant government departments on Tuesday, Southern district councillor Paul Zimmerman urged officials to increase the supply of quarantine rooms, or open up Penny’s Bay quarantine centre as a temporary measure to cope with the severe shortage.

“The biggest problem people have is finding quarantine hotel rooms quickly, because these hotels are not ready for this influx,” Zimmerman said.

He pointed to the fact that while people could bring forward their flight dates, many had trouble rebooking quarantine accommodation.

Zimmerman has been monitoring hundreds of comments on social media criticising the recent flip-flop on quarantine rules. He also said he had received several phone calls directly asking for help.

“People are in a kind of panic and they are disappointed … [The new rules] add to their frustrations,” he said.

Responding to a Post inquiry, the Food and Health Bureau said it would monitor demand for hotel quarantine, and consider the need to release some 1,500 reserve rooms at designated hotels if necessary.

It added that the average occupancy rate for the 36 designated hotels in September was 70 per cent.

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With two of its four properties in Hong Kong listed as designated quarantine hotels, Ovolo Group’s acting chief operating officer Marc Hediger said their reservation team had received constant inquiries about the new policy, requests to extend quarantine stays and even cancellation of bookings.

“This constant change of policies directly results in a constant change in bookings, which results in confusion from the public,” Hediger told the Post.

He said many guests had previously moved their booking to after August 18, the date when serology tests upon arrival were supposed to be accepted, in order to cut their stay down to seven days if they tested positive for antibodies.

But with the new announcement on Monday, guests were asking to change their bookings to before August 20, when the new changes take effect.

Aside from the US and France, other countries affected are: Malaysia, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Greece, Iran, the Netherlands, Spain, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Tanzania and Turkey.

Hediger added that his chain’s two quarantine hotels consistently remained at around 80 per capacity throughout 2021, with most guests flying in from the US, France and Spain.

The government confirmed on Tuesday the city would drop all forms of antibody testing used by arrivals from “medium-risk” countries to halve quarantine stays to seven days. Quarantine will be extended to 14 days starting this Friday.

The latest decision was influenced by health experts who a day earlier recommended the quarantine period for fully vaccinated people with positive antibody tests returning from the so-called medium- and low-risk countries be increased to 14 days, from the current minimum period of a week plus seven days of self-monitoring.

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In the latest designated quarantine hotel list, a total of 36 hotels across Hong Kong will provide about 10,000 rooms from September 1 to November 30, a cut of 7 per cent from the supply of about 10,800 rooms in the current cycle that ends in late August.

Michael Li Hon-shing, executive director of the Federation of Hong Kong Hotel Owners, predicted the impact on room supply would be limited because fewer residents would return to the city near the end of the summer holidays.

Li said extending the quarantine period for arrivals from some countries to 21 days might also scare travellers away, but he said hotels would still struggle to cope with the policy changes.

“Arranging room inventory and bookings will be very challenging to us,” he said.

Tourism lawmaker Yiu Si-wing urged the government to gear up for any surge in hotel demand, although he could not be certain of the policy’s impact on the number of arrivals in the coming weeks.

Yiu said the changes could result in tighter supply of quarantine hotels because of the prolonged isolation period. But he also noted some travellers could be deterred from coming to Hong Kong because of the stricter rules.

“The government needs to start finding extra rooms now,” he said. “Some businesses told me the policy was changing too fast and their customers could not adapt to this at all.”

He added there were about 1,000 rooms available in the existing hotels that could be used as a backup plan, while other premises not on the quarantine list were ready to lend support.

This article Coronavirus: Hong Kong hotels struggling as government U-turn leaves travellers racing to rebook rooms first appeared on South China Morning Post

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