Eleven years after China launched the individual visit scheme for mainland travelers, the influx of visitors has created a one-dimensional tourism culture in Hong Kong, namely shopping.
The rush has created problems such as crowded streets, overflowing malls, traffic snarls and shortage of goods for locals.
While retailers have benefited from the buyers from across the border, the general public is not happy with the situation. The negative side-effects are most visible in Hong Kong, but Macau is also suffering to some extent.
With the situation only expected to worsen further, both Hong Kong and Macau governments are realizing that some course correction is needed.
In recent years, both cities have come to rely heavily on the consumption of mainland visitors. But now, there is a need to reduce that dependence and broaden their income sources.
So, what could they do to bring down the proportion of mainland travelers without affecting their overall tourism revenue and competitiveness?
Many options could be considered, but the most feasible one is to expand the tourist bases to draw in more people from places other than mainland China.
Because of the individual visit scheme, Hong Kong streets have been filled with jewelry shops and pharmacies. Rental costs have become so high that old, small and traditional stores are finding it impossible to survive.
Meanwhile, Western visitors are put off by the ubiquitous shopping arcades and lack of focus on cultural and other attractions.
With the individual visit scheme policy coming up for a rethink, now is the best time for both Hong Kong and Macau to plan ways to attract travelers other than mainland shoppers.
“To attract more international tourists with high spending power, the Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai governments should not just do their plans individually but should cooperate and create synergy,” Simon Ho Shun-man, president of Hang Seng Management College, told EJ Insight in an interview.
Ho said the three governments should jointly promote the region, which includes shopping centers and theme parks in Hong Kong, casinos and cultural facilities in Macau and the waterpark and zoo in Zhuhai, to foreign tourists, tapping the potential of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge which is expected to be in operation in 2016.
“If successful, the average duration of each tourist visit should increase to seven days from one to two days at present,” Ho said.
Hong Kong should make good use of its beautiful scenery in Victoria Harbour and allow more restaurants along the harbour front, Ho said. “The current light shows are not attractive enough to international tourists.”
Reducing reliance on mainland tourists
Macau’s tourism industry has already realized the problems and has called for change.
Tourism authorities have focused too much on mainlanders, but it would be wrong to think that growth in mainland tourists will remain strong forever, Cheung Wang-ip, a Macau delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said recently.
The Macau Tourist Guide Association has noted that mainland and foreign tourists focus on different things. The former enjoy shopping and spend the rest of time in the casinos, while the latter would prefer to experience the cultural side of the city. They would want to visit the old city, try local and authentic Macau food, appreciate the scenic spots in rural areas and shop for local crafts.
For the industry, it has become critical to chart a new direction for the future.
With the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge expected to be completed in 2016, Hong Kong and Macau can seize the opportunity and work together to expand their sightseeing industries.
But before that, support infrastructure has to be put in place. Hong Kong has been criticized for moving sluggishly on building infrastructure in Lantau Island, the landing point of the bridge in Hong Kong.
For example, the Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok Link will not be completed until 2018, two years after the cross-border bridge opens to traffic. The delay in the Link’s construction will result in heavy traffic congestion.
Hong Kong is also lagging behind in building hotels in the biggest island of the city. At present, there are only 3,000 hotel rooms in Lantau Island, and there are no major projects in sight. In contrast, Hengqin, the landing point of the bridge in Zhuhai, already has 15,000 rooms under construction.
Tian Liang, a delegate to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, suggested that Hong Kong and Macau can join hands to jointly develop cruise tourism, especially as Hong Kong will see some new cruise terminals begin operations in the near future.
As Hong Kong has a deep harbor, providing a geographical advantage, it can take the leading role and share its expertise with Macau and Guangdong province.
Tian has urged the governments in these cities to roll out some incentives to help the development.
Besides cooperating with its sister town, the Hong Kong government should encourage the industry to develop tours than could show the extraordinary side of the city.
Lee Kui-wai, an associate professor of economics at the City University of Hong Kong, said that the Tourism Board should organize more themed tours and international sports events to attract more tourists from other countries.
Promoting trekking trails and cultural walks is also a good option.
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