(CNN) — Market seller Mr. Chan gestures around what was once one of Hong Kong’s busiest streets.
“There are no tourists at all now,” he says. Mr. Chan sells silver earrings, necklaces and scarves on Tung Choi Street in Kowloon, known for its robust night market.
The past three years have been tough for him. Before the pandemic he kept his stall open until 10pm but nowadays it closes at 7pm
He hopes for rapid change with the end of the quarantine, which has had a devastating effect on businesses that depended on tourism.
Hong Kong has taken steps in recent days to reopen itself to the world, first lifting its mandatory three-day hotel quarantine and then announcing a global banking summit in November.
Officials hope the move will revitalize Hong Kong’s status as an international business and travel hub, but some locals believe the change may be too late.
Mr Chan at his booth in the Hong Kong Ladies’ Maket.
A long winter
At its strictest, Hong Kong’s quarantine rules required incoming travelers to spend 21 days in a hotel room paid for at their own expense. Only residents of Hong Kong were allowed to enter.
As a result, travel in and out of the financial center was at record lows.
When news of the end of quarantine was announced on Friday, September 30, hungry Hong Kongers flocked to book flights online. The city’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, has set up a virtual “waiting room” to access its website, where wait times can easily reach 30 minutes.
Online travel booking service Expedia said its website also saw a 9-fold increase in searches for flights from Hong Kong to Tokyo and an 11-fold increase for flights from Hong Kong to Osaka.
However, interest in flights to Hong Kong remained unchanged, said Lavinia Rajaram, Expedia’s head of public relations for Asia.
The once thriving Mido Cafe closed in 2022 after foot traffic came to a standstill.
An uneven success
Although the hotel quarantine may be over, the city still maintains a three-day period in which visitors are not allowed to dine in restaurants or go to bars. That and the complicated visiting requirements, including a pre-flight vaccination certificate and negative tests, can deter potential visitors.
In November, Hong Kong plans to host the International Rugby Sevens tournament, which has been held every year since 1976 except for the past two years. A popular spectacle that drew fans from abroad before the pandemic, it’s doubtful how much the border restrictions will defy.
While drinking is allowed, eating during the event is prohibited. Fans will also be required to wear their masks at all times, except when drinking, according to the city government.
Hong Kong’s Asian neighbors including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have taken steps in recent weeks to remove the last remaining barriers to travel, making them more attractive destinations for international travelers.
Too late for some
The government’s attempt to reopen and promote the city came too late for Maxence Traverse, a restaurant owner who was forced to close his business, Honi Honi Tiki Bar, last year.
He says the nine-year-old bar was unable to survive the protests of 2019 and the pandemic. After a six-month hiatus, he opened a restaurant in the city’s Tai Hang neighborhood, but is fighting to keep it going, he said.
Traverse’s business is one of several in the food and beverage industry that have been permanently closed during the pandemic. Some of the city’s iconic Cantonese restaurants, including Mido Cafe, Jimmy’s Kitchen, and Lin Heung Tea House, have also closed their doors.
Traverse was extremely upset to see an interview with Hong Kong’s health minister, Lo Chung-mau, in which Lo said Hong Kong will continue to open up unless a new Covid variant emerges.
“I cried. Depression. Really hard, that hard feeling. I said, ‘Not again.’ Almost third year in a row, you know, it’s been tough,” Traverse said.
He believes that simply reopening the city will not be enough to restore what drew him there 12 years ago.
“We need to create excitement for Hong Kong because at the moment we have lost so many things,” he said.
CNN’s Jan Camenzind Broomby and Jadyn Sham reported.