Tania Sibree late last year quit her well-paid job as a financial services lawyer in Hong Kong and returned to Australia rather than live a moment longer with the territory’s strict COVID-19 restrictions.
Sibree, who said she had enjoyed the previous five years in Hong Kong, is one of hundreds — possibly thousands — of foreign expatriate professionals who have left or are planning to leave, threatening to dent the territory’s standing as one of the world’s financial hubs.
“The hotel quarantine made it just so tough for people to travel and that was the big incentive to being in Hong Kong, it was close to home and my parents, but you cannot do that long in hotel quarantine with kids,” she said. “Everyone had been thinking the restrictions would be lifted, it would get better and it would not go on for so long.”
COVID-19 infections in Hong Kong are much lower than most places in the world, but the territory is following Beijing’s “zero COVID” policy.
It has had stiff quarantines in place for two years, and last year introduced some of the world’s strictest entry rules, allowing only residents to return and mandatory hotel quarantine of up to three weeks for arrivals from most countries, regardless of vaccination status, paid for by the travelers themselves.
“The summer in Hong Kong will be the time when many people will throw in the towel and think to themselves: ‘This is just untenable,’” one capital markets investment banker said, on the condition of anonymity. “As a banker right now you’re much better off being based in Singapore. You can travel, and once or twice a year you could bite the bullet and come to Hong Kong and do the quarantine if you need to.”
More than 40 percent of members surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong said that they were more likely to leave the territory, with most citing international travel restrictions as the leading factor.
“For the fastest growing sector of wealth and asset management there is a lack of trained supply of talent. If draconian travel restrictions continue for an undefined and lengthy period, the talent issue will become all the more serious,” chamber president Tara Joseph said. “Many in the industry also expect that eventually many jobs in the sector will be taken up by mainland Chinese talent, leading to a big talent shift.”
Hong Kong’s population declined 1.2 percent between mid-2020 and the middle of last year, with more than 75,000 people leaving, Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department data showed.
Since September, the territory has had five months of consecutive net outflow in travel, government immigration data showed.
Meanwhile, the total number of visa applicants from all countries under the “general employment policy” fell by one-third last year to 10,073. Applicants for the financial services sector were down 23 percent.
“The proposition of bringing people into Hong Kong is not happening,” said John Mullally, regional director for southern China and Hong Kong financial services at headhunter Robert Walters.
“The only people willing to do it are the international or very senior executives or very young people without families,” he said.
One financial analyst at a global research group who has called Hong Kong home for more than five years said that he has been waiting for the territory’s international borders to open so he can see his family and friends.
With no sign of a change, he said that he has decided to move back to the US in the second quarter.
“Basically, we need to see our families and there is no end in sight to travel restrictions, no roadmap or plan,” he said. “Eventually you quit waiting and realize moving is the only option.”
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