What the Rugby Sevens Says About Hong Kong’s Financial Fate

FDowntown Hong Kong could turn into an extravagant party on a Saturday or weekend in spring. How did it all happen? 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. Two dozen international teams attended the Hong Kong match, which was ranked as the top fixture of the global sevens calendar.

Many would agree that it was also well-known for its carnival atmosphere. As spectators fought for their attention, they crowded the bleachers in extravagant costumes. In the Hong Kong Stadium’s infamous South Stand, the party atmosphere and level of beer consumption was legendary. The tournament was a popular choice for tourists, family members visiting Hong Kong, as well as business travellers. 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.

However, this was pre-COVID. From Nov. 4 to 6, the tournament that was postponed in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID-19 will be rescheduled. 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. Many others wonder if there is enough openness in the city.

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Big business and the Rugby Sevens are synonyms. Some of the city’s largest and oldest firms are among the sponsors and invitations to corporate boxes and hospitality suites are highly coveted. Before COVID, banks used to hold clients parties and meetings that coincided with Sevens. This could be attended by New Yorkers, Frankfurters, or London-based executives. 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.”

Not everyone is 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 has more than 400 new cases per day of COVID-19. It is shocking that the vaccination rates among large older people are still low, despite having access to free vaccines. In addition to putting great emphasis on social distancing from the very beginning of the pandemic plank, government officials also emphasize other mitigation steps such as isolation and social distancing. Officials reported that more than 5,000 were in isolation or quarantine at government-run camps. Although there have been many horror stories about the effects on the mental well-being of people being held in such institutions, the government insists that it will open more.

To enter any place, a government track-and trace app must be used. If they’re found at the same address as confirmed COVID cases, users will need to undergo mandatory PCR testing. On July 31, mandatory testing notices were issued by the government to anyone visiting any one of the 65 venues in the city.

For entry to Hong Kong, travellers must present proof of negative testing. Bars require rapid antigen testing (RAT), while children and workers must have them every day. A maximum of four persons can be gathered in a group outside. Wet heat and humid conditions make masks mandatory indoors as well as outdoors. Strenuous exercise, however, is an exception.

On Friday, April 1st, 2022, healthcare personnel wearing personal protection equipment (PPE), assist passengers heading to quarantine at the Hong Kong International Airport.

Paul Yeung—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The government collected $11.5million in fines between April 2021 & February 2022 for social distancing violations, including failing to wear masks or enter a bar with a positive RAT. A raid by police on an Italian restaurant that is popular for lunches or dinners was conducted in June. The veal parmesan cost $85. According to reports, diners were asked not to speak for one hour as officers checked their compliance with the COVID regulations.

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

McRobbie states that the Hong Kong Rugby Union will adhere to current COVID-19 regulations. Under a closed loop system, players will have to be housed in quarantine hotels. 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. Maximum capacity in the stadium is 85%. When they are not drinking or eating, attendees will need to use a surgical mask.

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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. Restriction on food in the South Stand may limit the time that drinkers will be willing to stay 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.

On the second day, the Hong Kong Sevens rugby tourney began with costumes packed into the South Stand at Hong Kong Stadium.

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. McRobbie says he’s received positive feedback from the international teams and is eager to return to the Hong Kong Sevens, even with the restrictions.

“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.”

Business community pressures you to become more transparent

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 stated this in an interview that was published in Hong Kong Economic JournalOn Monday, the government stated that it had in principle reduced the hotel quarantine period for inbound travellers to seven days. However, officials needed to review data to make any decisions. 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. Next week could see an announcement.

Hong Kong Investment Fund Association (a strong lobby group in the financial sector) stated that Hong Kong needed a clear plan to eliminate its quarantine requirements. This is necessary if Hong Kong wants to keep its position as an international financial centre. 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.

Learn 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. Although there’s no official count, the reporter has information about at least 10 individuals, including senior bankers and hedge fund executives, who moved to Singapore in the last few months. Rents in Singapore have risen 8.5% over the first half 2022, but fell 1.5% in Hong Kong.

Singapore may have some social rules, such as indoor mask wear, but it is largely embracing COVID-19. Visitors who are fully vaccinated can enter the country without being tested or quarantined. Over 37,000 people were present at the 150+ events held by the city-state in 2022’s first three months. Grand Prix organizers have recently stated to local media that they believe turnout will surpass the 270,000 who attended 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. It has been forced to lay off half its employees and lost 95% of its revenues due to the cancellations of 2021 and 2020 Sevens. McRobbie believes that the November pitch will be a turning point for McRobbie’s organization and other Hong Kong companies.

“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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