Still a Far Eastern star

Hong Kong's future as a top destination is bright
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The Independent Online
We all know what will happen on 30 June this year: Britain will hand back sovereignty of Hong Kong to China. The former UK colony will become a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic. But changes will affect the business traveller both before and after that date.

Within the next four weeks there will be two big developments. From 31 March, Air China - the national carrier for the People's Republic - will start flights from Heathrow to Hong Kong. The airline will compete against British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic on the route. Although initially Air China will operate only three flights a week, the addition of another Boeing 747-400 is likely to stimulate better value for business travellers.

The first Air China passengers will arrive in Hong Kong on the morning of 1 April - the day that British travellers lose some of their special privileges. Hitherto, UK citizens were free to stay for up to a year without formality, to take up employment or to open businesses. From April, permission for visits of up to six months will still be issued routinely to British business and leisure visitors, but anyone planning to work or establish a business will need to apply for a visa - through, reasonably enough, the Chinese Consulate.

The view within the travel industry about the best time to go to Hong Kong is simple: unless your work obliges you to be there around the time of the handover, avoid it. In the weeks leading up to 30 June, Hong Kong- bound planes are full, as are most hotels. The days immediately after the handover are unlikely to see any serious business done, as the territory marks its transfer to new ownership with a week-long party.

Once into the first long, hot summer under Peking's control, everything goes quiet in terms of bookings. The autumn could be the ideal time to visit Hong Kong and assess the changes. But anyone who has suffered the shambles that is Kai Tak airport in Kowloon may wish to wait until April 1998, when Hong Kong's old airfield should be replaced by a state-of-the- art facility on Lantau Island. Chek Lap Kok airport will be further from the central business district, but a high-speed rail link will get you to Hong Kong Island in 25 minutes - and, with a much greater likelihood that your aircraft will be parked at a gate rather than a remote stand, overall journey times and the hassle factor should fall once the new airport opens. The investment for Chek Lap Kok is often cited as a sign of good intent for the future. According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, there should be no reason why travellers to Hong Kong should not transact business as usual. A degree of self-government is enshrined for half a century under the agreement; equally assured is Hong Kong's position as a trading hub for East Asia, and the present frontier between the territory and the People's Republic. Peking-watchers may reasonably ask what is to stop the new Chinese leadership varying the terms of the agreement; the business community would respond by asking what is to be gained from jeopardising the unique geographical and economic position of Hong Kong? Interesting times, indeed, for the people and the visitor.

For more information, call the Hong Kong Government Office visa and documentation hotline on 0891 600111; or the Hong Kong Tourist Association on 0891 661188. Both these are premium-rate numbers, costing 50p per minute.