Zachary Kussin was ready. The New Yorker had marked the date on his calendar months in advance and checked the Hello Hong Kong website every day for more information, all in hopes of scoring a free airline ticket.
The Hello Hong Kong initiative was introduced to lure back tourists and revitalize the city’s tourism industry, which took major hits as the financial hub was almost impossible to access for three years due to Covid regulations.
At a splashy event in February 2023, city officials announced that some 500,000 free airline tickets would be distributed both to local residents eager for a vacation and international travelers keen to visit Hong Kong.
It sounded too good to be true for Kussin, who has never been to Hong Kong and felt that with the high cost of airfare from the U.S. to Asia he wouldn’t be able to afford to visit on his own.
Supply and demand
Tickets were distributed in stages, broken down by country or region. On May 17, residents of the United States and Canada could try their luck.
To be eligible for the giveaway, users had to sign up for an account with Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, then opt-in to receive promotional emails from the airline. On the day of the giveaway, hopeful travelers needed to log into their Cathay accounts, then wait for a promo code, which they could then use to book a gratis ticket.
However, huge demand meant that long digital queues formed even before tickets were available.
Kussin tells CNN that he waited half an hour just to log into his account, only to get an error message when he did. He refreshed and tried again, he says, only to be put back at the end of the line and told he had more than an hour to wait. Ultimately, his quest was unsuccessful.
A representative from Cathay tells CNN that the tickets were all snapped up in two and a half hours.
“We are very encouraged by the enthusiastic response from our Cathay members who registered for the exclusive ticket offer to Hong Kong,” the rep says. “As the home carrier of Hong Kong, we are excited to be supporting this campaign to welcome visitors from around the globe to discover the beauty of our beloved home city.”
“I was completely stonewalled,” Kussin says. “I’ve been hearing the same story from (other) people. They waited in a massive digital queue, they couldn’t sign in, and if they did they couldn’t find the promo code.”
“Airfare is so up across the board right now, and going to Hong Kong is really expensive. It would have been such a good deal and it would have sorted my vacation for the year.”
Instead, Kussin says, he’s decided to buy a less-expensive ticket to Portugal.