Hong Kongers dash to Japan as country reopens to solo travellers

Hong Kongers dash to Japan as country reopens to solo travellers

Crowds of Japan-bound passengers check in at Hong Kong International Airport on Tuesday morning. (South China Morning Post photo)
Crowds of Japan-bound passengers check in at Hong Kong International Airport on Tuesday morning. (South China Morning Post photo)

HONG KONG: Hundreds of Hong Kongers undaunted by expensive air fares and ticket troubles have dashed to Japan on the first day of its reopening to solo travellers, while a budget airline has increased flights to popular destinations in the country.

Tuesday marked the first day of Japan removing all coronavirus-related entry restrictions, opening up to independent visitors as opposed to previously only allowing package tours with visa requirements.

"I'm so excited. It's my first trip since February 2020, when I also went to Japan," Sa Chow, an Osaka-bound retiree in her 60s, said before hopping onto budget airline HK Express' second flight to the country with her husband.

"The timing was perfect as I booked my flight and hotel via a travel agent two days before Japan announced it was dropping restrictions, before things got mad."

The tourist hotspot on Sept 22 announced plans to scrap inbound travel restrictions, resuming visa-free independent travel.

Having booked a flight and eight-day hotel package for under HK$10,000 (48,500 baht), Chow said her expenses would fall to about HK$7,000 after refunds for four days of hotel quarantine and visa fees.

"I think the package is worth it, flights alone could easily cost around HK$7,000 these days, and it's only going to get more expensive," Chow said.

Other travellers were similarly excited about their first trip out of Hong Kong in three years, but recalled stressful experiences securing tickets.

Chris Wong, a 30-year-old clerk heading to Fukuoka on HK Express' first flight to Japan on Tuesday, told the South China Morning Post it took one week for his seat to be confirmed by the airline after the transaction went through.

"There was no confirmation email after the transaction, so I sent an email to the airline. It took three days before I received an acknowledgement email, then another three days before I received a formal reply to confirm my seat," Wong recalled, adding that it took a few more days before the update was shown on HK Express' app.

"I was a bit disappointed with the process. The flight was still on sale when my seat was pending confirmation. I wondered why they were still accepting new transactions when mine was not fully processed."

A 32-year-old traveller bound for Osaka, who wished to be identified by her surname Tang, described her experience as nerve-racking when she bought her ticket upon Japan's announcement to ease inbound travel restrictions.

"I waited for a long time while the website froze a few times. Prices went up by a few hundred dollars each time I logged in after a freeze," the media professional said.

With her return ticket costing around HK$6,000, Tang estimated a threefold increase from the amount she would have paid before the pandemic.

"I think the main issue was fuel prices increasing, but that was expected," Tang said.

HK Express said it had expected its first three flights to Japan on Tuesday to be full.

Airline CEO Mandy Ng Kit-man said the first flight to Fukuoka had an occupancy rate above 90% with nearly 200 passengers on board. Its second and third flights to Osaka and Tokyo respectively were also almost full.

"When Japan announced an upcoming easing to its travel restrictions around three weeks ago, we added around 400 flights to popular destinations like Osaka and Tokyo," Ng said.

HK Express said it would operate 50 flights a week to Japan in October. But it will increase the number of Japan-bound flights, aiming for 120 per week in December and about 260 next February.

Addressing complaints from dismayed customers whose flights were cancelled earlier, Ng said the overhaul was intended to provide a clearer and more accurate schedule.

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