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What a Rugby Tournament Says About Hong Kong’s Fate as a Financial Center

10 minute read

For a weekend every spring, the streets of downtown Hong Kong would turn into a raucous party. The occasion? The city’s iconic Rugby Sevens tournament. Rugby’s seven-a-side format is a dazzlingly fast, shorter form of the game—emphasizing speed, risk-taking, and agility over brawn. The Hong Kong meet was considered the number one fixture in the global sevens calendar, attracting two dozen international teams.

But few would deny that the event was just as well known for the carnival-like atmosphere that surrounded it. In the bleachers, spectators vied with each other in the lavishness and hilarity of their fancy dress. In the Hong Kong Stadium’s infamous South Stand, the party atmosphere and level of beer consumption was legendary. Tourists, relatives visiting their Hong Kong-based loved ones, and business travelers would time their Hong Kong trips with the tournament. And once the action on the field was done, thousands of fans would flood the streets of the city’s Wanchai red-light district, or the Lan Kwai Fong nightlife quarter, looking for their next drink. Little wonder that “See you at the Sevens” became a Hong Kong catchphrase.

But that was all in pre-COVID times. The tournament, which was called off in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19, will make a strictly regulated return to Hong Kong from Nov. 4-6. Some see the resumption as an important back-to-business moment for Hong Kong, where tough pandemic restrictions have seen many large events canceled and the city’s reputation as a global financial center badly dented. Others wonder if the city is doing enough to open up.

Read More: Hong Kong May Not Be Ready for Another COVID Surge

The Rugby Sevens and big business are synonymous. Some of the city’s largest and oldest firms are among the sponsors and invitations to corporate boxes and hospitality suites are highly coveted. Pre-COVID, banks would often hold client parties and meetings to coincide with the Sevens, which might be attended by executives from New York, Frankfurt or London. This year, Hong Kong’s central bank is doing the same thing: hosting a conference that will coincide with the tournament, hoping will attract global banking bigwigs and signal the city’s revival.

“I genuinely think that people see this as a really important watershed,” says Robbie McRobbie, the CEO of the Hong Kong Rugby Union (HKRU), which organizes the event. “People want to show their support and demonstrate that Hong Kong is resilient and still here and we all collectively want to get the show back on the road.”

But not everyone in the city is as optimistic. The Sevens will take place under an array of unfamiliar pandemic restrictions, and it isn’t clear how many international visitors will be willing to make the journey if the event is drained of its fiesta-like atmosphere. The government has also not offered a clear timeline or roadmap for moving on from the city’s “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy, which has left the city effectively cut off from the rest of the world.

“I can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” says a foreign employee of a multinational bank, who asked not to be named.

Hong Kong’s strict COVID-19 regime

Hong Kong is presently recording more than 4,000 new COVID-19 cases a day. The vaccination rate among the large elderly population remains scandalously low despite access to free vaccines, with the government giving great emphasis to social distancing and other mitigation measures from the earliest chapters of the pandemic playbook. On July 26, officials said more than 5,000 people were being held in quarantine or isolation at spartan government-run camps. Despite traumatic reports of the toll on the mental health of those confined to such facilities, the government says it is considering opening more of them.

A government track-and-trace app is required to enter almost any location, subjecting users to mandatory PCR testing if they are found to have been at an address around the same time as a confirmed COVID case. (On July 31, the government issued compulsory testing notices for anyone who had visited one of 65 venues across the city.)

Travelers have to show proof of a negative test to board a flight to Hong Kong and undergo a self-funded, 7-day hotel quarantine, and a barrage of additional tests, to enter the city. Rapid antigen tests (RAT) are required to enter bars, while school children, and many workers, must do them daily. Group gatherings in public are limited to four people. Masks are mandatory almost everywhere, indoors and out, despite the sweltering heat and humidity. (Performing strenuous exercise is one of the few activities that earns an exemption.)

Hong Kong Lifts Remaining Flight Ban
Healthcare workers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) assist travelers heading to quarantine in the arrival hall at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, April 1, 2022.Paul Yeung—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Between April 2021 and February 2022, the government collected more than $11.5 million in fines for social distancing breaches, such as failing to wear a mask or entering a bar without producing a negative RAT. In June, police raided an Italian restaurant popular for business lunches and dinners, where a veal parmesan costs $85. Diners reportedly had to sit in silence for an hour while officers checked for noncompliance with COVID rules.

It’s difficult to imagine how the social and sporting cavalcade of the Rugby Sevens will operate in such an atmosphere.

McRobbie says the Hong Kong Rugby Union will comply with current COVID-19 restrictions. Players will be required to stay in a quarantine hotel under a closed-loop system. That means that, aside from competing in the tournament, they’ll only be able to leave their rooms once a day to go to training via designated buses. Capacity in the stadium will be limited to 85%. Attendees will have to wear a surgical mask when not eating or drinking.

Read More: What to Do If You Test Positive for COVID While Traveling

That may be a stretch in the South Stand, where costumed spectators often start drinking before 9 a.m., and where it’s not unheard of to see people carried out semi-conscious before noon. Restrictions on eating in the stand may also curtail the length of time drinkers are willing to remain at the stadium. But at least the rules may provide inspiration for this year’s costumes.

“I envisage there will be a strong PPE element to the fancy dress,” says McRobbie wryly.

Fans dressed up in costumes pack the South Stand of Hong Kong Stadium early on the second day of the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tournament on April 7, 2018.Isaac Lawrence—AFP/Getty Images

Although about half of the tournament’s attendees are normally overseas visitors, McRobbie is confident that there will be enough local demand to fill 34,000 seats if border entry requirements aren’t relaxed. He adds that he has had positive feedback from international teams, who are excited to get back to the Hong Kong Sevens even under the proposed constraints.

“We know it’s not going to be a typical Sevens, we fully understand that,” says McRobbie. “But we do believe it has been a long time between drinks and the people of Hong Kong are ready for a bit of an opportunity to relax.”

Pressure from the business community to open up

The government is facing intense pressure from the business community to open Hong Kong’s borders. Hong Kong’s economy entered a recession in the second quarter, and pandemic restrictions have dented the profits of some of the city’s largest employers. That includes Sevens’ sponsors like HSBC, whose profits have also taken a hit, and flagship airline Cathay Pacific, which has laid off thousands of staff and reported $700 million in losses last year.

Many hoped that John Lee, who became the city’s top official on July 1, would make quick changes. Although his administration halted a much-loathed flight suspension mechanism—which imposed a temporary route ban if a certain number of passengers tested positive on arrival, throwing many travelers’ plans into chaos—it hasn’t made other major concessions yet.

Lee said in an interview published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Monday that the government had decided in principal to shorten the seven-day hotel quarantine requirement for inbound travelers, but that officials had to look at data before any concrete decisions are made. Local media has reported that the government may reduce hotel quarantine to four to five days, before requiring travelers to finish the rest of the week isolating at home—on the condition that they do not visit crowded areas or remove masks outdoors for the remainder of the quarantine period. An announcement could come next week.

On Monday, the Hong Kong Investment Fund Association, a powerful financial sector lobby group, said that Hong Kong needs a concrete plan for ending its quarantine requirements if it wants to retain its status as an international financial center. A shortened quarantine time is “not ideal,” Nelson Chow Kin-hung, the association’s chairman, told a press conference bluntly.

A four or five day quarantine is certainly unlikely to appease business or leisure travelers—especially when they can attended other top-draw sporting events in the region, such as the Singapore F1 Grand Prix on Oct. 2, with very few restrictions at all.

Read More: How Hong Kong Became China’s Biggest COVID Problem

The Southeast Asian city-state, often touted as a rival to Hong Kong, has already benefited from an exodus of Hong Kong professionals fed up of the city’s COVID-19 restrictions. Hong Kong’s senior bankers say they’re struggling to retain staff and find talent. Though there is no official tally, this reporter knows at least 10 people, including hedge fund executives and senior staff of global investment banks, who have moved in recent months to Singapore, where rents jumped 8.5% in the first half of 2022 (but fell by 1.5% in Hong Kong).

Although Singapore maintains some social distancing requirements, such as mask wearing indoors, it has largely decided to live with COVID-19. Fully vaccinated tourists are allowed to enter without testing or quarantine. The city-state held more than 150 local and international events, attended by over 37,000 people, in the first three months of 2022. Grand Prix organizers recently told local media that they are confident turnout will match the 270,000 visitors who enjoyed the race in 2019.

If Hong Kong hasn’t made significant changes to its pandemic restrictions by November, it may continue to lose out to its competitor. But despite the challenges, McRobbie says he is feeling “an overarching sense of relief” that this year’s Sevens will go ahead.

The application to hold November’s event is the sixth the HKRU has submitted since 2020—but the first to get the green light. The cancellations of the 2020 and 2021 Sevens cost the organization 95% of its revenue, and it has had to lay off about half of its staff. McRobbie hopes that when the players hit the pitch in November, it will mark a sea change not just for his organization, but for other Hong Kong businesses as well.

“It’s been very, very traumatic and very, very difficult for us, as it has for many, many companies,” he says. “Hopefully this can be a really important catalyst for Hong Kong.”

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Write to AMY GUNIA / HONG KONG at amy.gunia@time.com