21 July 2018
Chinese parallel traders were among 47.25 million mainlanders who came to Hong Kong last year. Photo: Reuters
Chinese parallel traders were among 47.25 million mainlanders who came to Hong Kong last year. Photo: Reuters

Why overreliance on Chinese tourists is a dangerous thing

One sector in which Hong Kong has consistently done well is tourism.

Much of this success can be attributed to the melding of western and Chinese cultures, our unrivalled infrastructure and ease of travel.

In fact, the government makes it unbelievably convenient for anyone to visit.

The result has been an explosion in the number of visitors to our fair city.

Last year, arrivals topped 60.84 million, up 12 percent from a year earlier. The record was achieved despite disruptions caused by the 79-day-long occupation of major streets by democracy protesters.

That’s also the kind of growth our neighbors can only dream of.

The question is at what cost is all this to Hong Kong? 

The answer depends on how you look at the numbers — but one thing stands out.

Nearly eight in 10 of those arrivals were from mainland China, or about 47.25 million, up 16 percent from the previous year.

It shows that our tourism strategy is heavily skewed toward visitors from across the border.

There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it’s making us too dependent on one market.

When you have a government that trumpets Hong Kong as Asia’s world city, you’d think it is promoting tourism to the world.

Instead, it looks the other way as mainlanders overwhelm our immigration counters, and does little to get China to rethink a visa scheme that allows its citizens to come to Hong Kong as individual tourists rather than as part of a group as was the usual practice.

We have no official figures but we can assume many of these visitors are parallel traders who have been blamed for causing shortages of basic necessities in Hong Kong and ratcheting up retail prices.

And get this: the Hong Kong Tourism Board says it has no plans to seek new markets and that it will stick with its China strategy.

This year, it expects China’s share of arrivals to hit 79 percent and overall growth to slow to 6.4 percent.

That’s down almost 50 percent from last year’s growth rate, ordinarily enough to ring alarm bells.

What’s worrying is that we don’t know whether the problem is lack of overseas promotion or western tourists have been avoiding us.

Last year, they accounted for less than 30 percent of arrivals, with visitors from North America and Europe, erstwhile key markets, making up just 7 percent of the total.

That leaves a sprinkling of traffic from other sources including Asia, but with 77 percent of the total, Chinese visitors dominate.

The dangers from overreliance on China cannot be overstated.

After all, when you have just over a quarter of the rest of the world coming to visit, you know you’re effectively serving just one market.

That means the bulk of the risks from an economic slowdown, policy changes, government shake-ups or business downturn comes from that one market.

But even that is apparently not enough deterrent.

Tourism chief Peter Lam wants to increase the proportion of Chinese tourists by 2 percent this year despite a slowing mainland economy.

He supports Beijing’s plan to open the individual visa scheme to more provinces and cities.

There are many theories about this.

One is that China wants more robust people exchanges between Hong Kong and the mainland to speed up economic, political and cultural integration amid questions about its implementation of “one country two systems”.

Another is that Beijing is prepared to roll back the visa scheme to cool cross-border tensions over parallel trading.

Ironically, people from Taiwan, Japan and Korea are keen to visit Hong Kong, drawn to similarities between their cultures.

Now, there is a chance for the government to diversify its tourism profile and once again make Hong Kong a truly global tourist destination.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer

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