The first group tour from Hong Kong to Japan in more than two years finally set off on Wednesday amid great fanfare after several delays, as the number of Covid-19 cases hit a two-month high.
Ten travellers joined the seven-day trip organised by EGL Tours, which had previously pushed back the departure date from June 11 to June 15 and then to Wednesday. The firm attributed the delays to the additional time needed to register and process visas, which are required for visitors to enter Japan.
While the government has eased travel curbs, it so far has refused to scrap the quarantine requirement with the pandemic showing no signs of ending soon. Health officials reported 1,447 Covid-19 infections on Wednesday, the highest since 1,433 cases were recorded on April 12. The daily figure included 124 imported cases.
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Separately, authorities reported 190 Covid-19 infections involving students and teachers from 165 schools. One person infected with the Omicron subvariant BA.4 or BA.5 was a FedEx Express worker at the airport, but the case has not been linked to any others in the community so far.
The package tour to Tokyo and Hokkaido costs almost HK$20,000 (US$2,564), with the price also covering a compulsory seven days of hotel quarantine upon the travellers’ return to Hong Kong.
Tour member Louie Yan Lok was thrilled to finally be able to visit Japan after a coronavirus-enforced absence of more than two years.
Arriving at Hong Kong airport at 7am, Lok exchanged Hong Kong dollars into 400,000 yen (US$2,945). He said he used to visit Japan more than 10 times a year before the pandemic.
“I really missed the food at Japanese izakaya [restaurants], and can’t wait to try it,” said Lok, wearing a mask with the Japanese flag on it.
Lok said he was not too concerned about the compulsory quarantine in Hong Kong as he could work remotely.
EGL executive director Steve Huen Kwok-chuen saw off the travellers at the airport and said he was glad guided tours had resumed. The company threw a welcome ceremony for tour members, handing out souvenirs to them.
Urging the government to consider quarantine alternatives, Hung added: “Travellers have expressed that they would be more willing to travel if they could quarantine at home. The government should use its wisdom to think of ways to help the tourism industry.”
Tour guide Polo Wong said he was excited to be leading a group again after a long time.
Wong said that to comply with Japan’s Covid-19 measures, travellers were not allowed to remove their masks unless they were eating or taking a hot spring bath.
If any travellers tested positive for the virus, local staff would accompany them to hospital for treatment, he added.
The group departed on ANA flight NH812 at 9.30am and landed at Tokyo Narita airport at about 2.30pm Japan time.
Jun Miyagawa, executive vice-president of alliances and international affairs at ANA, told the Post that the tour was an important first step, but said he hoped the Japanese and Hong Kong governments would both speed up easing of Covid-19 restrictions.
“Hong Kong is a very popular destination for Japanese tourists also and then for the Hong Kong people in Japan. So we would like to resume the flights as demand increases,” he said on the sidelines of airline industry body IATA’s annual general meeting in Doha.
The airline is currently operating three flights a week to Hong Kong. Whether that would increase “depends on the border restrictions and the demand resumption”, Miyagawa added.
He said Hong Kong was very important for Japan’s inbound tourism and he hoped demand would return, but for now it was constrained by a cap on entry to Japan and only group tours were allowed.
The Japanese government earlier said tourists from nearly 100 jurisdictions would be allowed to enter quarantine-free on package tours from June 10.
Yuen Chun-ning, executive director of local tour agency WWPKG, said its first tour was expected to depart on June 24.
He said 17 people, including clients and tour leaders, would fly to Japan on low-cost airline HK Express. Yuen added that they had received their visas, which took about seven working days to process, on Tuesday.
Japan has long been a favoured travel destination for Hongkongers, and tour agencies were quick to roll out various products after the rules were eased.
Hong Kong has been placed on Japan’s “blue list”, meaning travellers are not required to be vaccinated against Covid-19, undergo testing or quarantine in the country upon arrival. But Hongkongers are not exempt from compulsory hotel quarantine upon their return and multiple coronavirus tests.
The Japan consulate in Hong Kong said the country welcomed tourists from the city but did not have figures on how many groups were operating tours.
According to data from the Japanese National Tourism Organisation, Hongkongers accounted for 7.1 per cent of the 31.8 million visitors logged in 2019.
South Korea, meanwhile, is set to resume visa-free travel for Hong Kong residents on July 1.
Holders of both Hong Kong and British National Overseas passports, now derecognised by the city government, can enter the country without a visa for short-term trips such as tourism, business meetings and family visits, according to a notice issued on Monday.
But travellers will still need to apply for the Korea Electronic Travel Authorisation (K-ETA) and obtain approval at least 72 hours before boarding a plane or ship bound for the country.
Hong Kong’s coronavirus tally stood at 1,230,541, with 9,397 related deaths.
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