It’s time for the Hong Kong tourism industry to think beyond China.
The city’s tourism sector has been relying too much on mainland visitors for more than a decade since Beijing launched the solo visit scheme in 2003.
But the program, while responsible for the phenomenal growth of the business, has distorted the industry structure, with mainlanders accounting for more than 75 percent of the visitors to the territory last year.
It has also heightened tensions between mainland visitors and the local community as their influx has overwhelmed the city’s facilities and services and disrupted our normal way of life.
Our leaders certainly know the impact of this policy on the city, but beyond paying lip service, they have not done anything to convince Beijing on the need to review and restructure the program for the good of everyone.
For Hong Kong people, this year’s Easter holiday was a bit different from the previous ones. There was no congestion in major shopping districts such as Causeway Bay, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui.
Locals enjoyed their visits to theme parks like Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland as the presence of mainland visitors was not as overwhelming as before. In fact, some of the rides had no long queues, and local kids were able to enjoy them repeatedly. Hong Kong felt like home again.
But from the government’s perspective, the decline in mainland tourist arrivals during the five-day weekend was not a welcome sign. It showed the negative impact of the protests staged by local activists against mainland visitors over the past several months.
According to the Immigration Department website, 447,737 mainlanders arrived in Hong Kong on the first four days of the Easter break, down 6.6 percent from the same holiday period last year.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying immediately seized the opportunity to condemn the violent protests against mainland parallel-goods traders, which he said was creating a harmful impact on the local economy and tarnishing our reputation as a tourist city.
He pledged that the government will launch campaigns to win back the mainland tourists.
The tourism industry echoed Leung’s criticism and blamed the protests against mainland parallel traders for the drop in visitor numbers. Lawmaker Yiu Sze-wing, who represents the tourism sector, warned that the decline in mainland arrivals, if it continued, could shake the local economy.
But are mainland tourists really that important to the city’s economy?
According to a study published by University of Hong Kong on the city’s economic outlook for 2015, the individual visit scheme contributed 1.3 percent to the Hong Kong economy in 2012.
However, the HKU study, citing a government report, also said that if the program was discontinued completely, the city’s GDP would decline by 1.3 percent for one time only. This means that the impact would not be felt in the subsequent years.
This shows that Hong Kong could very well cope with the loss of revenue resulting from a move to end the solo visit scheme, and claims that mainland visitors are the pillar of Hong Kong’s economy are simply not true.
Hong Kong should draw up a tourism development plan that is insulated from political considerations. We should try to attract tourists from all over the world, instead of letting mainland visitors dominate the market.
It is beyond comprehension why the Hong Kong government is allowing mainland visitors to overwhelm our shopping malls and turn our facilities into their tourist spots. Our city is too small, and it simply could not accommodate the huge waves of tourists from across the border, especially in the wake of plans to expand the individual tourist scheme to cover other mainland cities.
Unless, of course, it is the intention of our government to put the mainland visitors’ interest ahead of ours.
Pro-Beijing politicians insist that Hong Kong should be grateful to Beijing for coming up with such policies as the solo visitor scheme to support our economy. So if Hong Kong people protest against mainland parallel traders who cart away our supplies of rice, milk, toilet paper and other necessities, we are not only being ungrateful but also unpatriotic for rising up against the motherland.
The fact is, Hong Kong people in general don’t mind if tourists come and enjoy themselves in our city. They are most welcome. What is hard to tolerate is if these tourists start disrupting our normal way of life and intrude into every facet of our community.
It’s time for Leung and his team to bring the city’s tourism industry back to normal by having a balanced mixed of tourists from around the world, and not just focus on China.
China is a major market but focusing on that one market only leads to rising social tensions in the local community.
The government should show that it cares for the welfare of its citizens, and it could start by working out a plan to reduce the city’s reliance on Chinese tourists.
It should also launch an honest-to-goodness crackdown on parallel traders, who are eroding our sense of community and order.
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