(CNN): Hong Kong’s government has announced plans to give away 500,000 free airline tickets as part of efforts to revive its tourism industry and attract visitors back to the city.
The “Hello Hong Kong” initiative was unveiled on Thursday but has been in the works for over two years.
Tickets will be spread out among the city’s three airlines – flag carrier Cathay Pacific, HK Express and Hongkong Airlines. The 500,000 tickets cost the city about $254.8 million in total.
How the giveaway works
Travelers keen to travel to Hong Kong can visit the World of Winners splash page starting March 1 to enter their names into the flight ticket lottery.
The tickets will be allocated in three waves: from March 1 to people across Southeast Asia, from April 1 to people living in mainland China and from May 1 to residents in the rest of the world.
Locals can get in on the action, too. From July 1, some airline tickets will be given out to Hong Kongers eager for a chance to make up for lost travel time.
Those who have been to Hong Kong before will find a different city than the one they may remember.
Some beloved local attractions, like the Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant, have closed permanently. Others, like the famous Peak Tram, have gotten a makeover during the pandemic.
Bringing travel back
Hong Kong was slow and cautious in its approach to the coronavirus pandemic.
The city began to cancel in-person events in January 2020 when the first cases of patients exhibiting symptoms of a new flu-like disease were reported in Wuhan, China.
Traveling in and out of Hong Kong was challenging and expensive during the pandemic. Strict quarantines, which peaked at 21 days of isolation, and requirements for multiple PCR tests kept out the majority of travelers.
These quarantines were served in hotels and paid for by travelers. Those who tested positive for the virus on arrival were sent to government facilities. Entry into the city was restricted to Hong Kong residents.
A Facebook group of more than 30,000 members helped Hong Kongers support each other through the challenging period, with some members sharing food deliveries, giving advice about coping with solitude and trading exercise tips.
Before the pandemic, Hong Kong saw 56 million visitors in a typical year. By 2022, that number had fallen to about 100,000.
And it wasn’t only foreign tourists staying away. The financial hub experienced its largest population drop since 1961, going down 1.6%.
By the time the city’s chief executive John Lee announced in September 2022 that quarantines would end, some worried it might be too late.