Tourism in Hong Kong is at the crossroads.
Golden Week no longer glitters much for retailers because mainland tourists are no longer coming as often as we want.
For the first time we have seen a sustained drop in overnight arrivals from the mainland this year.
Worse still, the weakening of most currencies and economies in Asia is also hurting arrivals. And we are not sure when the growth momentum will pick up again.
There is no smooth sailing. We have seen some downward adjustments owing to the outbreak of SARS, the financial tsunami and other ad hoc fluctuations.
Yet, the central government continued to support us by extending the individual visit scheme (IVS) status to various mainland cities, thus successfully easing the irregularity and fluctuation of arrivals.
The drop in China arrivals can be explained by the changes in their destination choices. It has become easier for mainlanders to travel to many other destinations where visa requirements have been eased, while travel to Hong Kong is still hampered by policy restrictions.
To many mainlanders, Hong Kong has been checked so many times on their bucket list. The attraction of revisiting the city is diminishing.
For residents of cities not covered by IVS, other foreign destinations might look more viable and less troublesome.
The lack of attractions has always been a barrier to the development of Hong Kong tourism.
Most of the major attractions such as Ocean Park, Hong Kong Disneyland and the Peak, have been around for at least 10 years, making them a bit difficult to sell to travelers.
Some new sites such as PMQ and Sky 100 are too small in scale and lack the “wow” effect that attracts overseas visitors.
As a destination, Hong Kong has a real need for new products.
My bet is that upcoming infrastructure will give a powerful boost to arrivals in the medium term.
However, the city has developed new attractions and an honest-to-goodness roadmap for the tourism industry’s long-term development.
Almost 15 years have gone by since Hong Kong embarked on a tourism economy. But did tourism deliver the desired outcome?
Perhaps, some people may argue that Hong Kong does not have a lot of options. It is small in size and lacking of natural resources for developing its manufacturing sector.
The education system has failed to nurture creativity and innovation in order to develop the high-tech industry.
Land value is too expensive for large-scale infrastructure. Yet, we have some of the finest South China cultural assets, our colonial heritage and a large and educated working population who can master foreign languages.
We have a beautiful harbor, a green territory right next to the city and an effective transportation network. It is the gateway to China for outsiders and for Chinese who want to see the outside world.
It seems very natural for Hong Kong to develop itself into a tourist destination.
Having said that, we have to bear in mind the potential barriers and issues affecting tourism development.
First and foremost, the high land cost hinders the development of our tourism capacity, both in terms of attractions and hotels.
The high cost and sustained demand have driven room rates to levels surpassing those of other hot international destinations such as Tokyo, London and Paris.
According to visitors, the high cost of almost everything in Hong Kong is becoming a concern.
It is not necessarily an issue whether they can afford the bill or not, but the more important consideration is whether they can perceive value in the money they are spending here.
Tourists and consumers nowadays are better informed and smarter in their choices. They are also keen on sharing their experiences online, thus providing a critical source of reference for other visitors.
What does it take, then?
Simply take a look at the list of objectives as stipulated in Ordinance 302 for the establishment of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
It might not offer exhaustive list of objectives that a destination would like to accomplish but will serve as a starting point for planning.
The Tourism Board’s performance is measured by six key performance indicators (KPIs) including arrival numbers, visitors’ length of stay, per capita spending, their level of satisfaction, intention to revisit and propensity to recommend Hong Kong to friends and relatives.
This list of KPIs does not cover the aforesaid objectives. No wonder the HKTB hasn’t really delivered the things that Hong Kong would like to see.
The current tripartite platform of the Tourism Board, Tourism Commissioner and Travel Industry Council is not a desirable or effective mechanism for tourism planning and development.
The reorganization of the existing structure or its replacement with a tourism office overseeing the holistic development of the industry is deemed essential. The first task of the office is to establish a tourism master plan and a road map for execution.
The plan should address the issues related to capacity, state the purpose of promoting tourism and contain a list of outcomes that Hong Kong intends to accomplish.
It should also map out strategies and tactics, consider implications on resources, negative impacts, and a mechanism for controlling impacts.
Tourism is a very unique sector which requires special knowledge of management.
The current tripartite establishment doesn’t seem to be working well. It is recommended that a new establishment should at least be equipped with talents and experts in the area of tourism.
Tourism is multi-disciplinary domain. It will involve and engage different functions and sectors.
Normally, it would benefit from a cross-sector committee for soliciting support.
The tourism administration would still be wholly in charge of the development and execution of strategies.
The committee, however, would be responsible for coordinating the different administrative domains, gathering their views and inputs, and soliciting support for the execution of programs.
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