UPDATE 4-Hong Kong asks Japan to drop airport bans, 60,000 travellers affected
(Adds Hong Kong govt comment; paragraph 9)
By Farah Master and Twinnie Siu
HONG KONG, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Hong Kong has asked Japan to withdraw a COVID-19 restriction that allows passenger flights from the financial hub to land only at four designated airports, saying the decision would affect about 60,000 passengers.
India, Italy, Taiwan and the United States require mandatory COVID-19 tests on travellers from China after Beijing's decision last month to lift stringent zero-COVID policies that fuelled a surge in infections across mainland China.
Hong Kong, home to more than 7 million people, is recording around 20,000 coronavirus cases a day but lifted its COVID curbs on Thursday for the first time in three years.
Japan, a top travel destination for those in Hong Kong, said it would limit flights from Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China to Tokyo's two airports, as well as Osaka and Nagoya, from Friday.
The decision comes during a peak travel season ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday which begins on Jan. 21.
"It is understood that around 250 outbound flights of Hong Kong airlines will be affected between December 30, 2022 and the end of January 2023, affecting around 60,000 passengers," the government said in a statement late on Wednesday.
City leader John Lee said the government had indicated to Japan that it was disappointed.
"We think that Hong Kong people should be allowed to use not just these four airports," Lee said.
On Thursday, Hong Kong's government said Japan would let passenger flights from Hong Kong also land in Hokkaido, Fukuoka and Okinawa provided that no passengers aboard had been in mainland China for the prior seven days, but said the condition was "unreasonable".
Flights of Hong Kong airlines can still carry passengers back to Hong Kong from airports in Japan, the government said, to ensure their smooth return and "minimise the impact to Hong Kong travellers caused by the incident."
In a statement, Hong Kong's flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said it would continue to operate flights to Japan, although it would reduce these to 65 a week, down 20% from its planned schedule for Jan 2023.
HK Express, which is owned by Cathay, said in a separate statement it would only be able to operate 60 scheduled flights a week to destinations in Japan due to the curbs, prompting the cancellation of 41 flights from Hong Kong to Japan in January.
Hong Kong Airlines and Peach Aviation said they would cancel some flight routes because of the rules.
In December, China began dismantling the world's strictest COVID regime of lockdowns and extensive testing, putting its battered economy on course for a complete re-opening next year.
The lifting of curbs following widespread protests has meant that COVID is spreading largely unchecked, probably infecting millions of people each day, some international health experts have said. (Reporting by Farah Master and Twinnie Siu; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Stephen Coates)