Tapping tourism's richer seams

Updated: 2017-03-03 09:23

By Luis Liu(HK Edition)

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Even as mainland outbound tourism blossoms, Hong Kong's tourism revenue withers. Despite this, Luis Liu reports, the potential for high-end tourism in the city is largely untapped.

Hong Kong tourism looks to be in the grip of a steady decline - which it is feared could become terminal if action isn't taken to reinvigorate the industry.

The biggest irony is that even though the Hong Kong government acknowledged the problem a few years ago, it was criticized by the local press for having failed to come up with useful ways to help. Things like shopping promotions, erecting statues of not-so-well-known comedy stars, and even asking local feng shui masters to name places for visitors with different Zodiac signs are dismissed as non-solutions.

Local observers say this is a "now-or-never" time to dispel the stereotypes of Hong Kong among tourists. But the tourism authority still seems a long way from being able to fully tap Hong Kong's "natural gifts" among its cultural, geographical and educational resources.

For more than a decade, mainland tour groups were the main driving force for the growth of Hong Kong's tourism, making up more than 75 percent of the total influx.

But according to statistics from the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), the number of mainland tourist arrivals went down by 6.7 percent in 2016, following a 3-percent drop in 2015.

Accordingly, the retail industry has had to face an 8.1-percent year-on-year drop recorded in 2016, according to the Department of Census and Statistics. Disneyland Hong Kong and Ocean Park, two of the city's largest theme parks, both recorded losses and witnessed a decline in the number of visitors in the past fiscal year. The latter even saw its biggest loss in 30 years.

During the same period, mainland outbound tourists increased from 117 million in 2015 to 122 million in 2016, up by 4.3 percent. This rise happened on top of an overall increase of 17 percent between 2010 and 2015.

They spent a total of $109.8 billion in their trips last year. This was $1,000 per capita - indisputably making them the world's biggest outbound travel spenders. But Hong Kong's regional competitors including Thailand, Japan and South Korea are the most popular tourism destinations.

It is also the case even across the ocean. A record number of Chinese tourists visited the US city of Boston last year - an estimated 230,000 people - dethroning the UK as the number one source of overseas tourists for the first time. They shelled out an estimated $273 million according to the Boston Globe, a daily newspaper based in Boston.

In March, Boston tourism officials are leading their first sales mission to Chinese mainland to attract even more visitors, the Globe reported. The Boston authorities aim to more than double the number of Chinese visitors to the city to half a million by 2021.

High-end tourism

To be fair, the Hong Kong government had realized the problem. In recent years it pledged to shift its focus to high-end tourism in a number of reports and papers handed to the legislature. In particular, it cited the disruption low-end tourism had brought to local communities.

On the other hand, it also noted the huge tourism potential of the mainland's new middle class. However, the public has not seen a workable plan as yet.

Nevertheless the HKTB can take credit for its strenuous efforts in looking for the elusive solutions to the SAR's unique tourism challenges.

It is high time for Hong Kong to explore high-end tourism instead of keeping the current system running, said Song Haiyan, associate dean and Chair Professor at School of Hotel and Tourism Management of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He hopes the government will get to the point and make this transition.

For instance, Hong Kong is seen as a cultural hub where East meets West. According to the latest statistics from the city's Commerce and Economic Development Bureau from 2016, the city stages over 8,000 performing arts shows every year, attracting an annual audience of over 3 million. The number suggests that the average Hong Kong person watches 0.4 shows per year. And the figure has basically remained unchanged since 2010, according to the statistics.

Last year, for the country's capital, Beijing, the corresponding figure was 0.5 - as the city of 20 million saw 107.1 million audience members flock to its performing arts shows.

Hong Kong has the potential to attract and accommodate more art lovers, especially from the mainland, Song said. However, in terms of wooing audiences it lags behind regional competitors Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, according to Song.

The government will have to step up efforts to attract people from across the border to Hong Kong's world-class art performances by offering convenience, Song said.

Treasured island

Meanwhile, Hong Kong is blessed geographically. It hosts around 90,000 migratory birds - around 380 species - every winter, according to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. This accounts for about 70 percent of the total number of China's migrant bird species, according to a calculation based on publicly available documents.

The Hong Kong Wetland Park gives Hong Kong a favorable position in attracting bird enthusiasts and curious children - from the mainland or beyond - to come and enjoy the natural wonder. This minority hobby generates healthy consumption but does not bring that many people, boosting the economy while fencing off the disruption other forms of tourism can cause in the city.

The idea is actually not new; it was included in a document presented to the Legislative Council back in 2000. However, the organizer of the bird-watching festival told China Daily that the park has no plans beyond maintaining its educational projects for local children only. And so far there is not yet a feasibility report on developing tourism from overseas, according to the government's public documents.

Similarly, the city's magnificent seashores and friendly climate were also overlooked even as an increasing number of compatriots from the north want to embrace a warm winter.

Hong Kong's educational features have also hardly been used as tourist attractions. Last year commemorated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sun Yat-sen, a revered revolutionary leader who played a pivotal role in overthrowing imperial rule in China. However, according to news reports, even fewer mainland student groups came to Hong Kong than the other way around. In fact, the government seems not to have explored working with local educational institutions to create historical tours.

Further, the city's universities could also attract more tourists. Beijing's Tsinghua University and Peking University have been seeing countless aspirant parents taking their kids there to seed their expectations of them. Now, parents are casting their dreams overseas.

A big proportion of Boston's Chinese tourist arrivals landed for tours of top-tier universities such as Harvard and MIT, according to the Boston Globe. The SAR government should work with local universities to attract visitors.

The landscape of the Asia-Pacific tourism market is undergoing rapid change, due to the rising volume of mainland travelers, Song stressed. Hong Kong must use its unique gifts to break the stereotype of being merely a shopping destination packed with low-end tour groups, he said.

When Japan is known for its history and closeness in cultural ties with China, Thailand for its hospitality and comfortable weather in winter, and even Taipei has a reputation for being a good place for leisure and gourmet tours, Hong Kong must shake off its image among mainland tourists as a city to visit only Disneyland and buy expensive brands.

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Tapping tourism's richer seams

Tapping tourism's richer seams

(HK Edition 03/03/2017 page7)