22 October 2016
If Hong Kong is becoming less tourist-friendly, its bureaucrats need to look into the mirror to find out why this is so. Photo: Bloomberg
If Hong Kong is becoming less tourist-friendly, its bureaucrats need to look into the mirror to find out why this is so. Photo: Bloomberg

How the bureaucrats are killing Hong Kong’s tourist trade

The government whines and whines about the falloff of tourists visiting Hong Kong, inevitably trying to blame protesters for the decline while its massive bureaucracy does its best to make this place into an international laughing stock and to ensure that it is as unattractive and uninteresting as possible.

I recently heard from a cousin in New York who had read something in the newspapers about the mass transit railway banning cellists from taking their instruments on the subway.

He thought it was a joke, but I had to tell him that this was indeed an edict from one of our largest companies and had been perused with vigor by the bureaucrats, who not only are working hard to impose the ban but at least in one instance sent two clipboard wielders in hot pursuit of an errant cellist who had escaped from a station with an offending cello in hand.

Following the uproar this has caused, the MTR will now be spending a month (yes, bureaucracies take their time) considering whether the ban should stay in place.

Meanwhile over at the Victoria Park mid-autumn festivities, another band of clipboard wielders were in hot pursuit of people who had the temerity to light more than four candles, because, apparently, the sages who run the leisure and blah, blah, blah department had decided to impose a candle limit on this year’s celebrations.

Honestly, you can’t make up this nonsense.

However when it comes to feast days for bureaucrats, no one has it better than the small army of clipboard holders employed by the hygiene, food safety and whatever else department who span out all over the city stopping restaurant, café and bar owners from providing al fresco facilities for their customers that threaten to add to the enjoyment of life.

Having just returned from a trip to Italy and Britain where the streets are alive with people enjoying al fresco dining and drinking (yes, I know drinking is very bad and no doubt should be banned), I came back to the soulless streets of Hong Kong where only the rich are permitted to enjoy roadside obstructions, as their idling limousines await the grand personages who own them.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah thinks some life can be brought back to the streets by introducing pop-up food vans, a great idea that will almost certainly be thwarted by the bureaucrats, who, as I write, are busy compiling lists to demonstrate the health and safety dangers, the risks to life and limb.

These poor dears will also be explaining in great detail about why it adds to their already considerable workload.

This is what you get from a bureaucratic mentality that starts from the assumption that anything new is inherently suspect, that anything threatening to provide pleasure is inherently undesirable and that all innovations need to be put in their place, because dealing with them may eat into the hours they spend slumped over their desks.

Yet there is an area where the Hong Kong bureaucracy positively welcomes change.

By no coincidence, it involves pleasing property developers.

Thus the bureaucracy welcomes and encourages the destruction of heritage buildings and sites on the grounds of progress and has the temerity to say that this is in the public interest.

Even in instances where the bureaucracy has been reluctantly persuaded not to destroy one of Hong Kong’s unique historical edifices, their best idea is always the same idea — turn them into shopping complexes.

The latest plan on these lines concerns the Bauhaus-like Central Market building, where there was actually a plan to develop something interesting.

This has been cut right back so that the centre of Hong Kong can enjoy yet another glorified shopping mall.

How do we know that this is so?

Because the chief bureaucrat’s first words about the new plan were, “This will not be just another shopping mall.”

Not only are these people shameless, they are also severely truth-challenged.

So, what is left to attract tourists?

Soulless streets, a proliferation of branded-goods stores emanating from outside Hong Kong and a couple of theme parks, one of which, the Disney park, prides itself on being as American as it is possible to be.

Even at the airport, the point of entry for most visitors to Hong Kong, there is not a single distinctly local outlet celebrating this place or any other sign that this arid (although admirably efficient) first point of contact for visitors is in any way distinctive.

The rising value of the Hongkong dollar makes this place even more expensive, and the relentless greed of local landlords ensures that the city is covered in chain stores and chain eateries.

The independents are getting harder and harder to find.

So, when the chief bureaucrats pop up at press conferences, as they did this week, moaning about the decline in the tourist trade and wondering what can be done to revive it, they come armed with, er, nothing, except a pathetic plan to throw more money at a failed formula.

Meanwhile, what about the rest of us, the suckers who live here?

Maybe we, too, might welcome a more vibrant, bureaucrat-tamed city.

Dream on!

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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