Stock-Hongkong-Airport Image Credit: Shutterstock

Hong Kong will begin giving away 500,000 airline tickets from Wednesday in a bid to attract visitors and boost its flagging economy, just as it finally drops its compulsory mask-wearing rule.

The tickets will be distributed by the city's airlines "- Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd and its budget unit HK Express, as well as Hong Kong Airlines Ltd and newcomer Greater Bay Airlines Co.

Who gets them first?

Residents in Thailand, initially. Cathay will hand out 80,000 round-trip tickets in March, starting Wednesday with 17,400 allocated to Thailand. Then it will expand the handouts to Singapore and the Philippines later this week and other nearby Asian countries in the following days.

Hong Kong Airlines will also distribute tickets from Wednesday to residents of Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. The carrier hasn't disclosed how many tickets will be handed out to each country. Greater Bay Airlines will give out tickets to Taiwan in May, followed by South Korea in July. HK Express will join the campaign in April, but it hasn't disclosed details.

Free tickets will open for mainland Chinese residents in April. Some 80,000 tickets will become available to Hong Kong residents in July, though it is unclear what routes they will be valid for. Authorities also haven't given a reason for the different timelines and ordering of the handouts.

Going to Hong Kong from UAE? COVID-19 rules explained

UAE residents can travel for free

The giveaway for UAE-based travelers is expected to begin in May of this year, with no specific date yet announced. Alternatively, UAE travellers can visit the ‘World of Winners’ web page starting March 1 to enter their names for the flight ticket lottery. Participants can visit the dedicated web page for this giveaway - - to register their information following the page’s guideline.

A top official with the Hong Kong government has invited UAE travellers to take advantage of the scheme. “It would probably be a 'buy one, get one free' lucky draw promotion," said Algernon Yau Ying Wah, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development. He stated that after the tourism board's approval, people who purchase tickets from Dubai will be given free return tickets.

For example, if you’re buying a ticket from Dubai, the return ticket from Hong Kong would be free under certain conditions. It is subject to what the tourism board decides.

- Algernon Yau Ying Wah, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Hong Kong

How to apply?

Cathay requires people to register on its website and take part in a quiz with three questions. The tickets will be distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis to those who get the answers right. Each applicant can submit one entry only. The winners will be announced on the campaign website on April 3 and receive a confirmation email the same day.

Hong Kong Airlines will also hand out tickets on a first-come-first-serve basis. It has released application details on its campaign page.

Who is eligible and other terms and conditions?

Cathay says participants must be at least 18-years-old and each winner can only get one ticket. Winners still need to pay taxes and surcharges, and tickets aren't refundable, redeemable for cash or transferable. You also can't upgrade seats using cash or frequent-flier miles.

Do the tickets expire?

Yes, according to Cathay. Winners will receive a unique code via email once the redemption period begins. That must then be used within a month to get a ticket.

When booking a ticket, the minimum stay in Hong Kong is two days and the maximum is seven days, Cathay says. Winners are required to travel within nine months of receiving the email containing the redemption code. Rebooking charges stand at HK$1,200 ($150).

Why is Hong Kong doing this?

Tourism has traditionally been a major contributor to Hong Kong's coffers, but three years of Covid restrictions kept the city largely closed off from the outside world and battered its economy, leaving it trailing rival hub Singapore.

Hong Kong's economy shrank 3.5% in 2022 "- the third contraction in four years "- and it had a whopping HK$140 billion deficit for fiscal 2022-2023, about three times higher than the government's original estimate.

The ticket giveaway is part of a "Hello Hong Kong" campaign to promote the city as a tourism center and bring back visitors. Airport Authority Hong Kong purchased the tickets in 2020 as part of a HK$2 billion rescue package for the aviation industry.