Hong Kong banned international flights with little notice. Residents are stranded overseas and spending huge sums on ‘washouts’ to get home
For two years, Hong Kong’s pandemic-era travel restrictions made flying into the city complicated and costly.
Then Hong Kong instituted flight bans, and travel became all but impossible.
On Jan. 8, with three days’ notice, the Hong Kong government suspended all commercial flights from eight countries owing to the increased risk posed by the Omicron variant of COVID, stranding residents who were traveling outside the city.
The flight ban trapped Tiffany Cheung and her husband in Toronto. They left Hong Kong for Canada in November after Cheung’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given a few weeks to live. Her mother-in-law passed away in early December.
Four days before Cheung and her husband were scheduled to return to Hong Kong in January, they heard about the flight ban and were “crushed,” Cheung says. “Our house, our cats, family, and community in Hong Kong…would have given us the comfort and safe space to process our grief,” says Cheung, 27, who works in marketing. Plus, both Cheung and her husband have been working Hong Kong hours—8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Toronto time every day. “It just wasn’t sustainable for us to stay in Canada,” she says.
Before the ban, Hong Kongers who traveled overseas knew they would face an arduous journey home, with quarantine requirements and scores of COVID tests. But at least they had that—a path back. Now residents trapped overseas have two options: Wait out the ban or “wash out” for 14 days in an unrestricted country. Cheung and her husband chose to do the latter in Thailand. Once back in Hong Kong, they will still face two weeks in a quarantine hotel and COVID test after COVID test.
What started as a two-week flight suspension is now in its sixth week. Hong Kong’s prolonged ban and the uncertainty about when it will end have frustrated stranded travelers (this reporter included), slowed air traffic in and out of Hong Kong to a trickle, and cast the city as one of the lone outliers in a world that’s increasingly opening up.
Three years ago, Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) was one of the busiest in the world, handling 71 million passengers and nearly 420,000 flights annually. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit air travel globally, traffic at Hong Kong’s airport plunged. In 2020, traveler numbers declined 88% to 8.8 million, and flights dropped 62% to 160,655.
The rollout of effective vaccines helped travel rebound globally in 2021, but Hong Kong maintained strict “COVID-zero” rules for incoming travelers—even fully jabbed ones—and its passenger and flight figures deteriorated further. Only 1.4 million people flew in and out of the Hong Kong airport last year, while 144,815 planes took off or landed.
For months, nearly all people flying into Hong Kong have been subject to a 14- or 21-day hotel quarantine at their own expense. (In late January, the government cut the longest quarantine period from 21 days to 14.) The government has ordered hotels to lock all guest room windows, citing the risk of virus transmission through open windows, meaning those quarantined have no fresh air for weeks. Travelers to Hong Kong must test negative for COVID 48 hours before boarding their flight and immediately after they land. During a 14-day quarantine, they are tested seven more times and twice more after their release.
When I left Hong Kong to visit family in Canada on Dec. 31, I knew what to expect on my trek back to the city in early February: an extended airplane journey from Calgary to Vancouver to Seoul to Hong Kong—many airlines are no longer flying direct to Hong Kong to avoid the city’s strict air crew containment rules—and a grueling weeks-long isolation in a hotel room when I landed.
What I didn’t anticipate was Hong Kong banning all flights from Canada starting Jan. 8.
Hong Kong’s airtight border restrictions had largely spared the city from large COVID outbreaks. As of Dec. 31, the city had recorded 12,649 cases of COVID and 213 deaths since the pandemic began, according to Our World in Data. But in December, Omicron slipped through Hong Kong’s defenses.
As a result, Hong Kong authorities banned all flights from eight countries battling their own Omicron outbreaks—the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines—as well as all travelers who had visited those nations in the previous 21 days (a period that was reduced to 14 days this month). Hong Kong added a ninth country, Nepal, to the ban last week.
The “flight suspension…is an extremely stringent measure,” a government spokesperson said on Jan. 5. “[We are] facing the threat of a rapid deterioration of the local epidemic situation. We must act quickly and decisively.”
The initial ban suspended flights for two weeks, but the government has extended it three times already, to Feb. 4, then Feb. 18, and now to March 4.
For me, the ban turned a four-week trip home into a six-week (and counting) sojourn and an exercise in waiting; waiting for government updates on the flight ban; for airline announcements on canceled flights and routes; and for quarantine hotel concierges to answer the phone or reply to my emails about date changes, refunds, and cancellations.
Because Hong Kong enacted the flight ban shortly after the peak holiday travel season, many others find themselves in similar situations.
“We knew that choosing to travel…now came with extra costs, risks, and stress,” says Louisa Harker, a 43-year-old founder of a brand marketing consultancy and a Hong Kong resident since 2011. She visited family first in the U.K., then in Canada in December. But “it had been nearly two years since I’d been home, and longer for [my partner]. We wanted to offer our parents…support as they dealt with some challenging situations,” Harker says. She and her partner are now stranded in Canada and preparing to wash out in Singapore.
Lewis Scott, a chartered accountant working at a consultancy, likes living in Hong Kong. “But being stuck [there] for two years and being away from family for so long was never part of the plan,” he says. Scott, 29, flew home to Scotland in December to visit family over Christmas and has been trapped there ever since.
Doris Cheng, a Los Angeles–based product designer originally from Hong Kong, booked a flight back to her hometown in early February to visit her boyfriend and family. “If it wasn’t for [them], I would’ve avoided going to Hong Kong,” she says. When flight suspension upended her plans, Cheng, 30, debated what to do for weeks and ultimately chose a Singapore wash out.
Hong Kong’s flight ban also heaped stress onto some travelers already facing difficult circumstances. Accountant Emily Ho, 31, left Hong Kong for San Francisco in December to visit her sister, who was undergoing cancer treatment. Ho was originally scheduled to fly back to Hong Kong in early January but is still stuck in California after six canceled itineraries. She never thought that Hong Kong would restrict its own citizens from entering. “It’s my right to [be able] to go home,” she says.
The 73,000-member Facebook group called “HK Quarantine Support Group” is flooded with posts from weary travelers. In January, one user wrote: “Frustrated about this cold-blooded government. My father passed away [a] few days ago in Hong Kong while I’m stuck in the U.K. I emailed the [Department] of Health stating my situation and asked for special consideration to join the funeral. Reply was a copy of the [Hong Kong government’s] new rule. No mercy at all.”
Rather than waiting out the ban and its ever-shifting deadline, some travelers are pursuing the only alternative: “Washing out” in countries where flights to Hong Kong are not banned. That means flying to places like Singapore, Thailand, Finland, Dubai, and Fiji and staying there for at least two weeks to skirt Hong Kong’s ban on recent travelers from the blacklisted countries.
Cheung and her husband are on day 16 of their washout in Thailand and hoping that Hong Kong doesn’t restrict flights from the Southeast Asian country before they get home. Being stuck in limbo in Canada was an emotional roller coaster. “Our journey is coupled with grief and a sudden loss; [it’s] not a vacation. We just want to be home,” Cheung says. Washing out in Thailand gave them some sense of control, but it comes with a financial cost. On top of flight rebooking fees and the cost of COVID tests, they’re paying for 21 nights in a Thailand hotel and will pay for 14 more nights in a Hong Kong quarantine hotel. Cheung estimates they have spent $8,000 on flights and hotels alone.
Thailand is a more affordable option, but Cheng picked Singapore for her washout for “peace of mind” since flights from Thailand to Hong Kong aren’t reliable. “I know a few people who were washing out in Thailand who eventually had to fly to Singapore. I just didn’t want more hassle like that,” says Cheng who’s spent roughly $5,000 on plane tickets and hotels. “The flights and hotels add up. I’m paying [for] 28 nights at a hotel just to get home. This seems like punishment to me,” she says.
Other travelers meanwhile, have chosen to wait out the flight ban in their current country, knowing full well the Hong Kong government could extend the March 4 expiration date again. Scott, stuck in Scotland, decided against a washout given the risk of Hong Kong banning his chosen washout country. “I feel more comfortable staying put, as long as I can continue to work. I’ve [already] been through four flight cancellations and rebookings,” he said.
Like Scott, I’ve also decided to stay put, given the inconvenience and costs of washing out. I’ve had to navigate working with teams spread across different continents and time zones and am facing a growing expense list—like continuing to pay monthly rent in Hong Kong—after nearly two months away. Still, I consider myself lucky to be able to work from my hometown with the Rocky Mountains, family, and friends close by.
Hong Kong–based businesses are also frustrated with the city’s tight travel restrictions. For months, they have warned the government that pursuing a COVID-zero strategy is hurting companies and jeopardizing the city’s status as an international business hub.
The Financial Times reports that French spirits maker Pernod Ricard asked its Hong Kong–based senior management to relocate temporarily late last year. The luxury hotel group Mandarin Oriental’s CEO James Riley also told the FT that Hong Kong “as a base from which to run a business [is] very, very poor today.” Riley says the hotel group’s COO left Hong Kong 15 months ago with no plans to return “because he can’t do anything here.”
Others are leaving, too. In the 12 months ended in June, the city recorded an outflow of 90,000 residents—a 1.2% population decline, the same rate at which Hong Kong’s population shrunk in all of 2020, when the city logged its biggest population drop in 60 years. Experts say the mass exodus is set to continue.
As countries around the world ditch COVID travel requirements, it’s unclear when Hong Kong will dial back its border rules. The city is now battling its largest COVID outbreak yet: It logged a record 6,116 cases on Thursday, and its health care system is overwhelmed. Hong Kong officials have reiterated the city’s commitment to eliminating all COVID cases, a policy that aligns it with mainland China. At the same time, researchers at the University of Hong Kong say banning flights and quarantining inbound travelers in hotels serve little purpose now that local COVID infections have surpassed imported cases.
Cheng, echoing the sentiments of many other residents and travelers, hopes Hong Kong will learn to live with the virus. “This zero-COVID policy is really [hurting] the people, the city, and the economy,” she says. “At least give us a chance to go home.”
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