No way home

June 22, 2022 09:49
Photo: Reuters

Before you lie three keys. The first key, to allow you to leave the country. The second key, to allow you to sleep under a humble shelter. The third key, to designate your status as a healthy, fully functional, and ready-to-mingle (barring social distancing requirements) human being. These three keys collectively shall unlock your way home – very much as Dr. Strange (Spoiler) had sought to send the many Spidermen and Wandavision on their ways home to their respective universes. It’s ironic, you think – this is probably the closest you’ll ever feel to being the Amazing Spiderman, constantly nagged on by the sneaking suspicion that somehow, for some reason, you just won’t make it.

You shrug. T-30 hours. There are 30 hours to go until the Big Moment. You’ve got the vaccine proof ready; you’ve got your negative PCR test (or so you think), and you’ve got the exceptionally sturdy and professional-looking hotel booking confirmation. You sit back and let out a sigh of relief: after all these months… all these years, it’s time to go home.

Then, on your way to the airport, you realise that something’s not quite right. A flight’s been cancelled – and it could be yours. Indeed, it is in fact yours. Or it is the case that you’ve developed symptoms despite being triple-jabbed – ironic, unlikely, unlucky, but possible. Or you’ve forgotten to double confirm your hotel booking, and the hotel has bailed on you. Or, indeed, the flight you are due to board gets cancelled due to the stringent and ‘rigorous’ quarantine routine. And thus you arrive at the airport, hands full of the goodies to present to the imaginary overlords checking your eligibility to return to the city – the Sacred, Forsaken Land – only to be told that, “You can’t board.” No way home.

You think to yourself – surely, this cannot happen to you. It’s understandable that this happens to those who do not take travel quarantine and internet hygiene seriously – but you’ve always been amongst the first ones to scout the Hong Kong government’s website for the latest details on room deals and hotel bookings. You made it a ritual to mobilise half of your extended family to help you source rooms and flights four months in advance. You prepare for things thoroughly, and you can tolerate no neglect or mistake. Slip-ups are rare: you have a penchant for perfectionism. So what went wrong? What did you do that rendered you deserving of the treatment of being stranded 10,000 miles away from home, wishing that you were Michelle Yeoh in Everything Everywhere All at Once?

I have a rather ambitious thesis. I would suggest that there’s nothing wrong whatsoever with what you’ve done. Indeed, you’ve gone above and beyond to accommodate, to acclimatise, to succumb and subject yourself to arguably the most stringent quarantine regimes in the entire world. The Hong Kong travel restrictions, introduced with the ostensible intention of upholding and preserving the wellbeing of Hong Kong citizens, have emerged to be amongst the primary causes of chagrin and pain for a vast majority of citizens and travelers alike, who have found themselves stranded abroad due to the unnavigatable quagmire of regulations and restrictions that stand between them and Hong Kong – home for some, business hub for many others, and a once-international city for the world.

We are told that Hong Kong is an international city. In theory, it’s hard to dispute this. It remains the freest city in China in economic and political terms; it is probably the most legally robust locale for firms seeking to make an entry into Greater China, and it is well-positioned within Asia to serve as a financial-cum-logistics nexus. But I shan’t bore you with relitigating talking points that many others have harnessed and cultivated a knack for reproducing with minimal thought. I want to talk about facts on the ground.

Here are some facts. The number of passengers carried by Cathay Pacific declined from 35.2 million passengers and 81,195 flights in 2019, to respectively 717,000 passengers and 18,000 flights in 2021. The airline itself had been deeply in the red, with losses of over 27 billion HKD between 2020 and 2021. The International Airport handled 170,000 passengers in May – a meagre fraction of its pre-pandemic levels.

Here are more numbers. Most decently sized quarantine hotels cost upwards of 10,000 HKD for seven days – and yet with price gauging and resales effectively running amok, we’re seeing desperate families and travellers forking out double, triple of that just to get their feet through the door. The limited number of quarantine hotel spaces has effectively generated a lethal chokehold on Hong Kong’s inflow of visitors, talents, capital, investors, and beyond. Good luck trying to get to Hong Kong within the next 60 days if you’re unwilling to i) stay up all night for the ‘opening of cycles’ and ii) pay ‘000s of HKD just to get a fighting chance at the bidding for a place to stay.

This is sheer madness. None of this makes sense. Why not home quarantine? Why not remove quarantine for triple-jabbed visitors? Why not embrace a pragmatic mix of pro-wellbeing measures, which factor into consideration the economic costs of an inward-looking, isolationist approach to tourism and travel?

Instead, we are told to believe that Hong Kong remains a glistening pearl of the Orient. Yes, Hong Kong is very international! Yes, Hong Kong will continue to prosper! After all, with such study travel restrictions, rest assured that those who remain behind shall thrive and prosper!!! As for those who could find no way home, well – sucks to be you, I guess?

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HKEJ contributor