Hong Kong Sevens makes comeback after three-year COVID absence

Rugby Union - Fiji v Kenya - World Rugby Sevens Series
Rugby Union - Fiji v Kenya - World Rugby Sevens Series - Hong Kong Stadium, Hong Kong, China - April 8, 2018 - Kenya's Billy Odhiambo is tackled by Fiji's Samisoni Viriviri. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

HONG KONG, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Rugby fans and revellers cheered the return of the Hong Kong Sevens on Friday as the city's highest-profile sporting event was held after a three-year COVID-19 hiatus, though safety protocols meant crowds were smaller than before.

The Sevens, last held in 2019, comes after scores of events have been cancelled, postponed or re-routed to other Asian cities such as Singapore, Bangkok and Seoul due to Hong Kong's rigid coronavirus rules.

Known for its festival vibe and fancy dress costumes, the three-day tournament is traditionally a major draw for visitors and big corporates. Spectators all wearing mandatory face masks streamed into the stadium as music blared.

Resident Donald Knapp, 56, said it was great to be attending, even with the various coronavirus rules, which include providing proof of a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) on a government app to enter the stadium.

"We are all used to RAT tests ... QR codes ... I look forward to some outstanding rugby."

The Nov. 4-6 event coincides with a global banking summit, which drew top Wall Street executives in a bid to restore the city's reputation as a global financial hub.

Both events have been pitched as an attempt to show that the Chinese special administrative region can resume business as normal.

Hong Kong has ended the requirement for hotel quarantine on arrival, but international visitors are banned from bars and restaurants for their first three days.

Masks are still required unless eating or drinking and proof of COVID vaccination and checking-in with the government app is required to enter most venues.

Around 50% of Sevens spectators came from overseas in 2019, with the event contributing around HK$400 million ($50 million) to Hong Kong's economy.

This year international spectators will be "down significantly", organiser Hong Kong Rugby Union said, with this year's event more "locally focused".

Resident Isabel Li said she was overjoyed to secure tickets which are normally hard to get.

"I think COVID-19 has given me the chance to experience this event," she said.

Corporate box sales, which raked in HK$116 million in 2019, are down year-on-year, in line with expectations, the Union said. With many of Hong Kong's restrictions only recently lifted, many companies have had little time to plan for the event.

The government only confirmed in October that food would be allowed into the venue during the Sevens.

"These are significant barriers to corporate planning for the event. We welcome the new measures of course, but they are likely coming a bit late in the day for November, " the Union said.

HSBC and the city's flagship airline Cathay Pacific are the two main sponsors of the Sevens.

City leader John Lee said this week that as Hong Kong's COVID situation eases they can hold more big events.

Alex McQueen, 34, a player on Hong Kong's team, said they were excited for the event's return and had prepared as much as possible.

"We just get on with everything ... we are hoping it can return to as big an event as it previously was before COVID."

($1 = 7.8496 Hong Kong dollars)

Reporting by Farah Master and Joyce Zhou; Editing by Peter Rutherford and Philippa Fletcher

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