HONG KONG, China - Hong Kong is ready to welcome the world back, its leader said Thursday, as he pitched free flights and positive publicity to resurrect the once-vibrant global hub after three years of Covid-enforced isolation.
The government's rebranding campaign, "Hello, Hong Kong", bills itself as an effort to tell "good stories" about the southern Chinese city, where years of political repression, coupled with pandemic curbs, have tarnished its business-friendly reputation.
Promising "no isolation, no quarantine and no restrictions" during a speech to business and tourism heavyweights, Chief Executive John Lee announced 500,000 free air tickets for visitors to experience the city's "hustle and bustle".
The giveaway will open in March, with another 80,000 tickets up for grabs to residents in the summer.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is probably the world's biggest welcome ever," Lee said.
Adherence to Beijing's zero-Covid doctrine of quarantine, closed borders and face masks kept Hong Kong largely virus-free until a deadly Omicron outbreak at the start of 2022.
But it also contributed to an economic recession and the exodus of more than 2.5 percent of the population.
Even as business leaders warned Hong Kong would need a full Covid exit plan before any meaningful reboot, officials insisted on gradually rolling back restrictions long after the rest of the world opted to live with the virus.
The controls closed off what was previously one of Asia's most connected cities.
Hong Kong welcomed just 600,000 visitors in 2022, less than one percent of 2018's figure.
More than 130 international companies have shuttered their Hong Kong offices over the past three years, while a recent survey of 253 Japanese companies showed securing quality workers was their top concern.
According to official figures, more than 140,000 people left Hong Kong's labour force last year, when the economy contracted by 3.5 percent.
Lee, a former security chief currently under US sanctions over his role in snuffing out democracy protests in 2019, promised to correct the poor publicity he and other government officials have blamed for the metropolis's malaise.
"I will personally carry the promotional messages of our prowess as the world's freest economy and China's international financial centre," he said.
Speaking to AFP at the campaign launch, Peter Burnett, the former chair of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said "the proof will be in the pudding" for the reboot.
"At least they're doing something about it. And that to me is very, very encouraging."