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Travellers arrive at Hong Kong International Airport before making their way to hotel quarantine on September 23, 2022.ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

For almost a thousand days, Hong Kongers returning from abroad have been subjected to some form of quarantine, as the Chinese territory pursued one of the world’s toughest COVID-19 policies.

For a long time, that meant three weeks in a hotel room – at the traveller’s expense – and a raft of tests. After a devastating local outbreak in February that overwhelmed Hong Kong’s medical infrastructure and led to thousands of excess deaths, those restrictions have looked increasingly ridiculous, cutting off parts of the world that in some cases had lower infection rates than Hong Kong itself.

In March, the quarantine requirement was dropped to a week, then months later to three days.

On Friday, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee announced that, starting next week, it will be done away with entirely.

“We hope to give the maximum room to reconnect Hong Kong and to revitalize our economy,” Mr. Lee said, adding that the government is confident “we can contain infection numbers at a reasonable rate.”

Air travellers will still undergo a PCR test upon arrival but can leave immediately afterward. They will be barred from entering venues such as bars and restaurants for three days, during which they must undergo more tests at government-run sites, but are free to travel around the city and go to offices.

The government is also scrapping a requirement for a pre-departure PCR test – an often expensive and laborious process – replacing it with a self-administered rapid test before boarding a flight.

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Pressure has been mounting on Hong Kong for months to ditch hotel quarantine, with international and local business chambers blaming the tough requirements for an increasing exodus of talent and damage to a local economy that is highly dependent on tourism. Some 113,000 people have left since mid-2021, according to government figures, though that has also been driven by an ongoing clampdown on political and personal freedoms in the former British colony.

Major sporting and trade events have been postponed or cancelled, and the city this week dropped to third place, behind regional rival Singapore, in a ranking of global financial centres. Hong Kong’s standing as an aviation hub has also been severely damaged, with many carriers cutting flights to the city and moving routes elsewhere.

The website of Hong Kong’s beleaguered flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, crashed soon after Friday’s announcement.

But despite the pressure to reopen, particularly as much of the West returned to relative normality this year, Hong Kong struggled to balance a desire to restore international travel – particularly tourism – with an equally pressing need to have an open border with mainland China.

The rest of the country has been closed to Hong Kong for much of the pandemic, and even as the city has gradually lifted restrictions, “zero COVID” remains the law of the land across the border.

This was long seen as an impossible needle to thread, but during a visit to Hong Kong on July 1 for the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover to China, President Xi Jinping praised Hong Kong’s “close connection with the world market” as one of its “distinctive advantages.”

Since then, Beijing has repeatedly signalled support for Hong Kong’s gradual reopening. Speaking Tuesday after reports that a scrapping of quarantine rules was imminent, Huang Liuquan, the deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, called recent moves “understandable.”

“The city government has adjusted and improved its anti-epidemic measures based on the actual circumstances,” he told reporters in Beijing.

Hong Kong’s announcement Friday comes soon after Japan and Taiwan said they would lift most restrictions on arrivals starting Oct. 11 and 13, respectively.

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