24 October 2016
For some tourists, a night at a local singing parlor is a much more enjoyable experience than trips to glitzy shopping malls and theme parks. Photo: HKEJ
For some tourists, a night at a local singing parlor is a much more enjoyable experience than trips to glitzy shopping malls and theme parks. Photo: HKEJ

How Hong Kong can renew its charm as a tourist destination

As Hong Kong officials seek ways to boost tourism revenues and visitor numbers, they would do well to bear one thing in mind: not all tourists are crazy about shopping or doing the typical sightseeing.

Interviews with visitors will reveal the stark fact that many are not interested in the usual tourist traps, and that they seek something more during their travels.

A Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly report in October recounted the comments of some people who made trips to the city in the past few months. 

One couple, who identified themselves as Lucas and Ingrid, said they were dismayed to find that Hong Kong’s tourism scene is dominated by one aspect — shopping.

“Is shopping the culture of Hong Kong?” said the visitors, who traveled all the way from Brazil.

The tourists pointed out that one can find all the same big brands in every major city and airport in the world, and that it would be a mistake if Hong Kong thinks it can pull in visitors by touting its shopping attractions.

Speaking of themselves, they said they wouldn’t be doing much shopping in the city, with the high prices and unfavorable foreign exchange rates serving as deterrents.

Another case pertains to Singaporeans Jacinth and Don, who said they were visiting Hong Kong for the first time.

The couple said they love boutique shops and old-style cafeteria. But if there is only shopping, one can easily get bored. Hence, they are keen to move around like locals and learn about the real Hong Kong.

“Somebody handed us property sales flyers, we were astonished to find that flats here come in mini size as small as 200 square feet,” they said.

A mainlander named Zheng Xiaoping, who has visited Hong Kong many times, said he is put off by the cookie-cutter chain stores that seem to be everywhere in the city.

“It’s Sasa (cosmetics chain) and Fortress (appliance group) everywhere. Shops with character are now harder to find, and sales staff are sometimes rude,” the person said.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that “Walk In Hong Kong”, a tour operator that offers visitors a more authentic, real-life Hong Kong experience, has received encouraging feedback from its clients.

The reviews suggest that it will be in Hong Kong’s interest if it promotes some genuine attractions and local culture.

“This is better than karaoke, with live music and all that,” Ronald Green, a retired professor from the United States, said after visiting a singing parlor in Yau Ma Tei. “We have no such thing in the US at all.”

Green said that before he arrived in Hong Kong, he only knew about the Peak and the city’s skyscrapers.

He said the trip gave him a local perspective that guide books cannot provide.

“Excellent! I have been to Hong Kong many times; it’s always shopping and sight-seeing. I never thought there could be a chance to understand the local culture and talk to young people here about their views on politics and the economy,” another visitor, a person named Nicole, commented about the Walk In Hong Kong tour.

Yau Ma Tei history, a trip to the century old fruit market and a tour of the night market are part of a three-hour walking tour which costs HK$650 per head.

“People are now more interested in local experience, that is one way to attract high-end visitors,” says Paul Chan, Walk In Hong Kong founder.

The company also takes tourists to other districts like Wan Chai, North Point, Kowloon City and Sham Shui Po. It’s as much a tour as a crash course on local history as well as current livelihood issues.

Organizers like Adventures in Hong Kong and Big Foot Tour also take visitors to local spots to experience the real Hong Kong and its cuisine.

While there is nothing wrong with promoting Hong Kong as a shopping paradise, the city needs to offer more than shopping experience to attract a greater range of visitors, including foodies, history buffs and architecture lovers, industry experts say.

Chan describes this as a soul-search process.

“Hong Kong’s charm does not lie only in LV bags or infant formula. We need to dip deep to rediscover what’s so great about Hong Kong, and then turn that into a tourist product,” he says.

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EJ Insight writer

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