Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu previously said the scheme’s expansion was expected to bring about 300,000 extra visitors to Hong Kong and generate up to HK$1.5 billion (US$192 million) in additional revenue each year.

Lawmaker Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, also a member of the government’s key decision-making Executive Council, said local airlines, including Cathay Pacific Airways, should roll out more new routes and direct passenger services to the eight newly added cities to fully capitalise on the benefits of Beijing’s goodwill measures.

“Without direct flights, there is no incentive for mainland tourists of these remote cities to come a long way to Hong Kong. You cannot expect them to fly more than 10 hours with layovers at different places just to visit the city,” he said.

“Our nation has specially looked after Hong Kong by adding more cities to the solo travel scheme. Local airlines should actively provide more offerings to respond to Beijing’s favour, which is designed to bring in more long-haul mainland tourists to the city.

“We cannot afford to miss out on this golden opportunity to boost the economy and tourism.”

Lam advised the government not to rely so much on Cathay Pacific for opening new routes, saying authorities could allocate more air traffic rights to other local airlines for running the relevant direct flight services.

“Authorities may consider opening up the traffic rights, bringing more opportunities to other local airlines. Many people say Hong Kong should not just let one airline dominate the market.”

Tommy Tam Kwong-shun, chairman of the Society of IATA Passenger Agents, said Cathay had an “unshirkable responsibility” to offer to the four cities without direct services.

“As Hong Kong’s flag carrier, Cathay should offer direct services not yet available to the cities because it is a landmark offer from Beijing,” he said. “Cathay also has a social responsibility to Hong Kong after the government bailed it out from its setback during the pandemic.”

Cathay Pacific should roll out more new routes, lawmaker Jeffrey Lam says. Photo: Edmond So

He suggested that some routes could even be run by its low-cost arm, HK Express.

Tam said Cathay played a key role in Hong Kong’s positioning, adding anywhere in the city could serve as a tourist spot as Beijing’s top official on Hong Kong affairs, Xia Baolong, said recently.

“Cathay’s strength lies in its global network, which means Hong Kong can serve as a connecting point for passengers travelling between the Shandong cities and Sydney through Hong Kong, for example,” he said.

Paul Weatherilt, chairman of the Hong Kong Aircrew Officers Association, said when Cathay shut down its subsidiary Cathay Dragon in 2020, it sacked 550 pilots and 3,000 Chinese-speaking flight attendants.

“This tore the heart out of the China network and they have only been able to partially rebuild it, let alone add new destinations,” he said.

“Cathay has not been able to resume its old network in full and has concentrated on partially restoring the more profitable and high-profile routes.”

But Weatherilt said other local airlines also had their limitations when it came to opening more routes to different mainland destinations.

“Whilst Cathay has idle aircraft available but insufficient pilots, other Hong Kong airlines such as the Greater Bay Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines do not have the aircraft available to operate these routes nor do they have the pilots,” he said.

A Cathay Pacific plane taking off at Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Dickson Lee

The Transport and Logistics Bureau said the government was very grateful to the central government for further expanding the Individual Visit Scheme to cover the eight new cities.

The bureau also emphasised that it, jointly with the Airport Authority, had engaged both local and mainland airlines to strengthen or commence services to and from these cities.

“We understand that the airlines are now actively planning more service enhancements to these cities, including scheduled flights to and from Harbin in June 2024,” it said.

Cathay said it welcomed the expansion of the scheme to more mainland cities which would further attract more tourists to Hong Kong, and contribute to the sector’s continued growth and development, adding that it was currently flying to 17 mainland cities at present.

“We look forward to providing high-quality passenger flight services for more customers from different cities on the mainland … As we have rebuilt, we have been progressively adding more flights and destinations for our customers, and this will continue,” it said.