Hong Kong’s beleaguered tourism industry will receive HK$377 million (US$48 million) in aid to help operators cope with the collapse in demand during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Travel agents, tour guides, coach drivers and operators of cross-border vehicles and ferries are set to benefit from the government’s latest round of financial aid, with the first payments expected from early September.
Tourism had been hard hit by the anti-government protests in 2019 and the coronavirus crisis that followed, said commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah as he announced the funding on Thursday.
Yau said challenges for the industry remained, even though the government was opening up more avenues for business, including allowing the resumption of local tours and “cruises to nowhere”. He added officials were exploring forming travel bubbles with other economies.
“Despite our efforts, with the [pandemic] still widely affecting the world, cross-boundary … travel can hardly be resumed in the near term,” he said.
“Taking into account the grave challenges faced continuously by the tourism industry, the government has decided to provide a round of special further subsidies to continue to support the relevant trades and tide over practitioners during this challenging period.”
The support package involves a series of one-off payments to the sector through the anti-epidemic fund, which was rolled out by the government last year to help businesses stay afloat.
Travel agencies with 10 or fewer staff members will each be given HK$50,000. Those with 11 employees or more are eligible for HK$5,000 per worker.
Staff at travel agencies, freelance accredited tour guides and tour escorts will be offered HK$7,500, with tour coach drivers to get HK$3,350.
For operators of cross-border transport services, owners of coaches and hire cars will receive HK$30,000 for each vehicle, while ferry firms will receive HK$500,000 per vessel.
Tourism lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said he hoped the latest package would help travel agencies manage until the end of the year.
“This round of funding can slow down the wave of shutdowns and lay-offs,” he said.
But he said the resumption of quarantine-free travel with mainland China or the establishment of travel corridors with other destinations seemed a distant prospect for Hong Kong, which had been in near lockdown for about 18 months.
Yiu called on officials to increase subsidies for local environmental tourism, adding that relaxing Covid-19 testing requirements for “cruise to nowhere” travel could also help operators attract more customers.
Officials have announced they will lift a ban on non-residents entering from countries deemed at medium-risk for Covid-19 on Monday. But arrivals will be required to undergo quarantine at designated hotels.
Efforts to reopen the border with the mainland have been thrown into doubt following new outbreaks over the border involving the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
The industry welcomed the government’s subsidy scheme but warned that operators would continue to struggle.
Timothy Chui Ting-pong, executive director at One Bus Hong Kong Macau, said that while he was thankful for the support, HK$30,000 per vehicle could only cover one or two months’ salary for coach drivers.
He added the relaunch of quarantine-free travel with Macau was shrouded in uncertainty after the city’s 491-day streak of zero local infections ended.
Arrow Travel Agency managing director Tommy Tam Kwong-shun said the aid would do little to help his firm and its workforce of about 16 staff, most of whom were on unpaid leave.
Tam also urged officials to offer more subsidies to agencies running green tours locally.
“Although we can’t earn much money through the scheme, we can at least support the livelihoods of one or two more staff members,” he said.