Now is time to reconnect with our neighbor Macao

The easing of flight control restrictions and a subsequent announcement on permitting foreign visitors to enter Hong Kong amid the fifth wave of the pandemic presented business owners and expats with a major boost of optimism that the economy would soon return to normalcy.

Given that the number of infected cases is currently declining, indicating a steady downward trend with no obvious risk of rebounding, it may be time to consider and evaluate the selective reopening of our border internationally in order to restore the economy.

Hong Kong is a city with a long history of attracting an influx of foreign visitors, and its people are accustomed to frequent leisure and business travel across the globe. But for more than two years, many of the residents of Hong Kong have been living under tremendous anxiety and stress, as their habit of traveling has been reduced to a mere necessity.

It is accepted and acknowledged by many that our immediate priority is to work toward opening up the border with the Chinese mainland, and subsequently, in time, with the rest of the world.

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Hong Kong residents have suffered immensely in the last two years, not only financially but also psychologically. Some lamented the loss of family members and friends, others missed out on business opportunities, and our global competitiveness was put in jeopardy.

Despite the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government’s assurance that the city’s status and reputation as an international financial center has remained intact during the pandemic, some multinational corporations and executives have been considering relocating their operations and regional bases to other places, such as Singapore.

With the pandemic currently demonstrating signs of abating, restoring Hong Kong’s economy as rapidly as feasible becomes a prime objective. Mr John Lee Ka-chiu, the chief executive-elect, campaigned on the slogan “Starting a new chapter for Hong Kong together”. After a time of obscurity, the people of Hong Kong have high aspirations for their new chief executive to lead them back to prosperity.

As we embark on a plan to reopen the border with the Chinese mainland, we should simultaneously consider the possibility of reopening the border with Macao

While we must always remain vigilant and prepared for new infection cases, both imported and domestic, discussions and conversations regarding selectively reopening our international border might actually yield more advantages than disadvantages.

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As we embark on a plan to reopen the border with the Chinese mainland, we should simultaneously consider the possibility of reopening the border with Macao.

Although Macao was spared from major COVID-19 outbreaks in the past two years, it has encountered and endured its own economic challenges. According to the International Monetary Fund’s baseline projections for Macao’s gaming sector, even though a seamless transition to the new legal regime for gaming is anticipated, they have forecast a sluggish recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, with the gaming industry recovering to pre-pandemic levels only in 2025.

Elsie Ao Ieong, Macao’s secretary for social affairs and culture, has said that Macao was working on a proposal to enable nonresidents from specific countries to enter the city, with Portugal being the primary candidate.

After Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng issued an order prohibiting foreigners from entering because of the pandemic back in March 2020, this proposal symbolizes the first, albeit extremely tentative, step toward Macao reopening to the world. But what about allowing access to Hong Kong?

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Reconnecting the two special administrative regions, in my opinion, would benefit both parties and generate synergies. Macao’s GDP is mostly composed of tourism revenue from the gaming and retail sectors, hence the absence of Hong Kong visitors has resulted in a significant economic loss.

In addition, since the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development plan involves both the Hong Kong and Macao SARs, bringing the two closer and fostering new collaboration is crucial to the Greater Bay Area’s success.

Furthermore, given that many Hong Kong residents have been under immense pressure and stress since the eruption of the pandemic, an opportunity for a weekend getaway to Macao to enjoy a change of scenery, a scrumptious meal, and some leisure gaming would be beneficial to health; after all, we must look after our psychological health as well as our physical fitness. Therefore, if Hong Kong intends to selectively reopen its border, it’s wise to look to Macao.

The challenge is how to effectively implement such a strategy. The incumbent SAR administration has been chastised for “lack of vision, planning and execution capabilities”. People now hope that the incoming new administration will do a better job by way of a results-oriented approach.

In order to facilitate the reopening of the border between the two SARs, a well-thought-out plan must be in place. A detailed and concrete execution strategy with foresight and emergency protocols, in my opinion, is essential.

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As a precondition, we must diligently screen, test, and eliminate any potential risk of spreading the virus to Macao. The risk of exporting infected cases can be significantly reduced if we strictly adhere to our screening and quarantine regulations.

Moreover, high-level discussions on collaboration on areas, including testing of inbound and outbound travelers, quotas and controls on visitors, tracking capabilities, vaccination requirements, transportation regulations and travel restrictions, should be held as soon as possible.

Without these precautions in place, reopening travel between the two sides could backfire, which neither of the two special administrative regions desires.

Finally, as individuals and as a community, it is time for us to look beyond COVID-19 and consider how we may live our lives to the fullest.

The author is founder of Save HK and a Central Committee member of the New People’s Party.