Hong Kong was euphoric yesterday after the World Health Organization (WHO) lifted a SARS travel advisory that has hit the economy hard, and no new infections were reported for the first time since March. But some cautioned a full recovery could take time.
Financial Secretary Antony Leung toasted the decision in the Lan Kwai Fong restaurant district -- the front page of one newspaper showed Leung grinning outside a bar, beer in hand and two blonde women planting kisses on each cheek.
"Now we need to tell the world, including mainland China, that Hong Kong is a safe city," Leung told reporters Friday, shortly after the Geneva-based WHO dropped the warning against travel to the former colony.
"Hong Kong smiles again," the sensationalistic Chinese-language Apple Daily declared on page one. "What a difference a day makes," said the English-language South China Morning Post.
But Health Director Dr. Margaret Chan warned at a news conference Hong Kongers should not become complacent, because SARS is not yet wiped out.
"It can go both ways anytime," Chan said.
Chan said Hong Kong has decided to maintain temperature checks of people at border crossings for one year, in the hope SARS will not be spread by travelers.
Hong Kong reported two more SARS deaths yesterday, raising the toll to 262, but there were no new cases reported for the first time since the territory began releasing daily statistics in March. Hong Kong has now had 1,724 people infected.
Thousands of Hong Kong people are still wearing surgical masks, although many here think the crisis is almost finished.
"Now the tourists will come back," civil servant M. Yip told a reporter on her way to work yesterday morning.
The WHO's recommendation against travel to the territory had devastated airlines, tourism and other businesses, costing Hong Kong millions and leaving its image badly tarnished.
Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong Executive Director Joseph Tung told reporters local tour agencies were already recouping some of their losses through discounted short-stay packages targeting Asian tourists.
But others say it may be too soon to toss the confetti.
Accountant Wilson Yam predicted it would take time to overcome Hong Kong's SARS stigma.
"The tourists won't suddenly rush back in," Yam said.
"It may take months for the international community to regain confidence in Hong Kong," Legislator Emily Lau said in a statement, noting the territory was still listed by the WHO as an infected area.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways said yesterday the company would adopt a wait-and-see attitude and had no immediate plans to change its flight schedule.
Passenger demand "will not come back strongly or quickly," spokeswoman Lisa Wong said.
The travel advisory caused a major traffic slowdown, forcing Cathay and fellow Hong Kong carrier Dragonair to cancel scores of flights.
Researchers in Hong Kong said Friday they had found the SARS virus in civets -- a delicacy eaten by some Chinese -- and they believe that the disease may have jumped from the animals to humans.
In China, officials announced five new deaths from SARS yesterday and 34 new cases, a slight increase over recent days.
Beijing accounted for 26 of the new cases, the Health Ministry said, up from just seven earlier in the week. Three of the deaths were also in Beijing, with the northern regions of Inner Mongolia and Liaoning also reporting one each.