Hong Kong asks South Korea to remove ‘unreasonable’ flight restrictions after Hong Kong is embroiled in row between Beijing and Seoul

Hong Kong has asked South Korea to withdraw “unreasonable” restrictions restricting flights from the city to landing only at the capital’s Incheon International Airport after an escalating row between Seoul and Beijing over Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Hong Kong authorities reported through official channels on Tuesday after South Korean authorities announced the new measures earlier.

“The Hong Kong government has written to the South Korean authorities and contacted the South Korean Consulate General in Hong Kong expressing serious concerns and strongly urging the authorities to lift the restrictions,” a government spokesman said, calling the ban “unreasonable”.

The Transportation and Logistics Bureau reminds local airlines to inform affected passengers of the latest flight arrangements as soon as possible and provide them with necessary support and assistance.

Flight restrictions imposed by South Korea came to light on Tuesday after Beijing decided to suspend short-term visas for South Korean entrants. The South Korean consulate in Hong Kong did not initially specify when the rule would be introduced, but said on Wednesday that the measure was rolled out on Monday, a day before the move by mainland China.

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According to the airline’s official website, all direct flights from Hong Kong to Jeju Island or Busan Airport have been suspended. Prices for one-way flights to Seoul around the Lunar New Year skyrocket to HK$4,000 ($512), roughly double the off-peak price.

South Korea’s flight restrictions have some Hong Kongers planning trips to popular tourist destinations outside Seoul for the upcoming holidays.

Huan Guoquan, executive director of Dongying Travel, said his company was urgently arranging flights for 60 affected tourists who planned to travel to Busan during the Lunar New Year holiday, which began on Jan. 22, via direct flights operated by Hong Kong-based low-cost airline Express.

Instead of going directly to Busan, customers will now have to fly to Seoul and then take a three-hour bus ride to the popular port city, he said.

“The sudden ban not only affects Hong Kong tourists after three years of strict travel restrictions, but also the hotel industry in South Korea. It’s a lose-lose situation,” Huen said.

Yonhap News Agency reported on Tuesday that the South Korean authorities required flights from Hong Kong and Macau to only land in Incheon before February 28, citing concentrated epidemic prevention and control as an excuse.

Passengers at Hong Kong Airport.Photo: Yi Yangwen

The requirement for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing within 48 hours of arrival for all travelers from Hong Kong and Macau remains in effect from January 7.

Domestic flights that transfer to other flights in Incheon are also not allowed, according to a notice on the website of the Korean Consulate in Hong Kong.

The debate was sparked last month when Seoul added to a list of countries that have imposed travel restrictions on Chinese tourists, such as visa restrictions and testing requirements, citing a surge in Covid-19 cases on the mainland.

The restrictions come after China announced it would lift mandatory quarantine measures for positive cases, as part of a sweeping departure from its zero-coronavirus policy.

China has suspended some visas not only to South Korea but also to Japan in retaliation for coronavirus-related restrictions, Tokyo media reported on Tuesday.

China suspends visas to South Koreans, Japanese over travel curbs

Chen Weixin, an international relations scholar at Chinese University, said Beijing’s response fulfilled the “commitment” made earlier by its diplomats.

He referred to remarks by foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning that the travel restrictions lacked “scientific basis” and that China could take countermeasures.

From Beijing’s perspective, the academic said Seoul’s reliance on Chinese semiconductor materials made such retaliation a “pretty safe card”.

“South Korea’s countermeasures amount to a diplomatic need because it only restricts the flow of passengers – mainly tourists – without harming commercial activities in the capital,” he said.

Chen added that further escalation was “unlikely” between the two sides, given Beijing’s official rhetoric has emphasized a return to normalcy, and the South Korean government likely does not want the dispute to spread to other areas, especially trade and commerce.

The report initially said South Korea imposed the flight restrictions after Beijing decided to suspend short-term visas for entrants from the country. However, the Korean Consulate in Hong Kong has made clear the timetable.

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