Winners of the Hong Kong government’s mass plane ticket giveaway have said that while they were under no illusion that the flights being offered were indeed free, the fees they were asked to pay were steeper than they expected.

Hong Kong International Airport Covid-19 arrival travel
Inbound travellers in the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong International Airport’s air ticket giveaway began with flights on offer to travellers from Southeast Asia. The city’s flagship carrier Cathay Pacific – one of the airlines distributing the round-trip tickets – announced its winners earlier this month.

Two winners, both from Singapore, told HKFP that when they attempted to book their flights on the Cathay Pacific website using their redemption codes, they were prompted to pay around HK$1,150 in carrier surcharges and taxes.

“I wasn’t expecting to pay that much,” Jo said, adding that he said he thought other airlines charged less.

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Lantau’s Big Buddha and Ngong Ping 360 cable cars. File Photo: GovHK.

And while the Singapore winners’ fares – valued at S$280 (HK$1,655) – were waived entirely, Jo said he thought round-trip fares were typically lower in November, when he hoped to fly because the “weather is cooler.” On Friday, when HKFP checked the price of a four-night trip to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific in the first week of November, fares began at S$195 (HK$1,150), although fares vary according to a number of factors.

In response, Cathay Pacific told HKFP that both the Hong Kong International Airport and the airline’s campaign pages state that related fees would be borne by the winners.

It did not answer a question about how the fare was calculated.

The Airport Authority Hong Kong also said the terms and conditions of the campaign clarified that winners were liable for additional fees.

Hong Kong International Airport Cathay plane flight
A Cathay Pacific flight. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

It added that around 135,000 tickets were being distributed in the first phase to the Southeast Asian market, and that the giveaway to mainland Chinese tourists would begin next month.

‘Hello Hong Kong’

As part of its “Hello Hong Kong” campaign to lure tourists back to the city, authorities announced in February they would give away 500,000 plane tickets. According to the campaign website on the Airport Authority site, the tickets will be distributed through activities such as a lucky draw, on a first come, first served-basis or buy one, get one free schemes.

Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong Airlines began their giveaways in March to travellers in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia, among others. HK Express will start their handouts in April primarily to tourists in mainland China, while new carrier Greater Bay Airlines will begin theirs in May.

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The campaign comes after the city endured three years of strict Covid-19 rules, which saw borders effectively closed as arrivals were forced to complete three weeks of hotel quarantine when restrictions were at their most stringent.

Chief Executive John Lee called the free tickets “probably the world’s biggest welcome ever.”

A Thai national, who asked to be referred to as P, told HKFP she won round-trip on Cathay Pacific from Bangkok and had to pay around 4,000 baht (HK$920) in extra fees. Flying with a full-service airline like Emirates would cost around 5,000 baht, she added.

“I knew it wouldn’t be completely free,” P said. “But I didn’t expect that the taxes and surcharges would be this much.”

Hao Long, a Singaporean who won Cathay Pacific tickets, said he did not foresee that there would be additional charges but that it was “not unreasonable.”

“I understand that taxes aren’t paid to the airline, so that amount can’t really be subsidised,” the 28-year-old software developer said.

Visitors at Hong Kong Disneyland on March 1, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

He added that he and two other friends also received the tickets and had already booked their trip to Hong Kong in late June, a period they picked because it fell on a long weekend in Singapore.

“I think paying around [HK$1,150] is acceptable for flying during this time, as many people would be looking to travel around then,” Hao Long said.

On the other hand, Jo said he had not yet booked his “free” flight and may even forgo it. He said he was eyeing a promotional fare from Singapore Airlines that offered return flights for around HK$1,475.

At just a few hundred dollars more than the extra fees associated with the Cathay Pacific giveaway flight, Jo said it might be better value as Singapore Airlines’ flight times fit him better. He added that his wife also wanted to come to Hong Kong, and it would be cheaper for her to buy a the promotional-fare ticket with Singapore Airlines than pay full price for Cathay Pacific. And that way, they could fly together.

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Vacant shops in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Both Hao Long and Jo, however, said they had not heard of the city’s Hello Hong Kong campaign.

“I would have thought it was closely related to Hong Kong opening up,” Hao Long said. “But [Hello Hong Kong] was not widely broadcasted within the [giveaway] campaign itself.”

Tourism up, but still low compared to pre-Covid

Hong Kong’s tourism sector, touted by authorities as one of the city’s key industries, took a hard hit during Covid-19 as visitor numbers dried up – though they have seen signs of rebound recently.

There were around 1.46 million arrivals in Hong Kong in February, almost three times more than in January, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Hong Kong International Airport Covid-19 arrival travel
Arrivals at the Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The figure, however, was still a fraction of what the city used to see before the pandemic. Over 5.5 million people arrived in Hong Kong in February 2019, and even when Hong Kong was gripped by the protests against the extradition bill that year, monthly arrival figures never fell below 2.5 million.

Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung said last month that he did not expect Hong Kong to see an immediate surge in tourists as it would take time for travellers to plan their trims.

“I’m sure that more people will come to Hong Kong to visit, to enjoy the very beautiful scenery and also the many good tourist attractions,” he said.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.