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Airlines and hotels strike gold as the Hong Kong handover looms

Visitors who want to come to Hong Kong to witness the historic handover of power that takes place in four months' time can still make bookings. But they will need a very healthy bank balance.

One travel agent estimated that Hong Kong's hotels are asking as much as three times their normal room rates for the period around 30 June.

The rates were described as "horrendous", by another travel agent, who declined to be named for fear of damaging his relations with the hotels. He added, however: "It's understandable: how many handovers can you have?"

The airlines serving the colony are also cutting out all discounted tickets, and therefore effectively doubling the price of normal, economy-class tickets.

Virgin Atlantic has even decided that it will impose a surcharge on flights during the handover period. According to Mark Siladi, the airline's regional manager, Virgin "is trying to protect the consumer and ensure that during the period of the handover of sovereignty as many people as possible are able to return to Hong Kong".

The colony's official tourism organisations are sensitive to any suggestions of profiteering. Peter Randall, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA), said that the HKTA had carried out a survey of 78 per cent of the colony's hotels and found that about a third of capacity was still open for booking.

Harbourside and luxury hotels are already fully booked, as are most of the lower-price hotels and hostels. But in the medium-price range availability is fairly good away from the central areas.

One problem is that many of those who want to be in Hong Kong for this period have made multiple advance bookings to ensure their presence.

British Airways, for example, has discovered that a quarter of its passengers have made more than one booking. These double bookings are now being cleared.

Cathay Pacific Airways now insists that tickets for the handover period are paid for within seven days of reservations being made. This rapidly flushes out double-bookers, but not to the extent of clearing space in flights in the few days before the handover.

British Airways currently has a waiting-list of 1,200 passengers for these few days.

Negotiations are about to start with Hong Kong's civil aviation authorities to permit both British Airways and Cathay to add extra flights.

Meanwhile, there are a large number of daily flights to Hong Kong from places such as the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

These flights are less heavily booked than the direct flights to Hong Kong from Britain or North America.

The planning for lavish handover parties with international visitors started a couple of years ago.

Ted Marr, one of Hong Kong's most famous international party-planners, is co-ordinating a typically lavish event lasting several days which will leave the party-goer very little change out of pounds 5,000.

Few hotel rooms are left at less than pounds 100 a night but it will be easy to pay some pounds 600 a night in the bigger hotels. The bulk of available rooms are at prices in the middle of this range.

The local tourist industry is aware that the handover boom might prove to be a double- edged sword.

"If we don't handle it well", said one executive, "we might see a big drop in business after it's all over".

The HKTA is already planning to avert this problem. From 1 July it will launch an ambitious programme of tourist events and discount schemes involving hotels, restaurants and shops to lure back visitors.

Indeed, the best advice for would be visitors may be to wait and see Hong Kong once the new era begins.

One thing is absolutely certain: it is going to be much, much cheaper.

What's the bill

Normal price of discounted economy return airfare from London to Hong Kong: pounds 600.

Full-price economy fare during handover period: pounds 1,200.

Medium-range hotel room at normal periods: pounds 120 per night.

Medium-range hotel room during handover: pounds 300 per night.

Luxury-range hotel room at normal periods: pounds 300 per night.

Luxury-range hotel room during handover: pounds 600 per night.