25 October 2016
Many Hong Kong citizens openly welcome the fall in visitor numbers as they get no benefit from tourism but have to bear the consequences in terms of high rents and crowded transport. Photo: Xinhua
Many Hong Kong citizens openly welcome the fall in visitor numbers as they get no benefit from tourism but have to bear the consequences in terms of high rents and crowded transport. Photo: Xinhua

Tourism dilemma: What Hong Kong can learn from San Francisco

Anyone who knows San Francisco will probably be familiar with Lombard Street.

In particular, they will know the famous one-block section on Russian Hill, where the roadway zigzags down the steep slope.

Gardens with flowering plants jut out between the bends in the road, creating a picturesque and unique-looking urban environment.

It has appeared in quite a few movies, notably in car-chase scenes.

That fame, along with views of the Bay and proximity to the cable car system, make it a magnet for tourists.

It is also a residential area.

In recent years, the number of tourists visiting Lombard Street has grown considerably.

Sightseers in cars like to drive down the narrow winding roadway as a fun experience.

This increases congestion and the inexperienced drivers often scrape buildings and walls along the way.

The tourists on foot with selfie-sticks love to take their photograph at the bottom of the street, which holds up the traffic even more.

Residents complain that the visitors climb over gardens, or onto private property, and leave trash around the place.

Tourists have also started to attract criminals. This summer a visitor from Thailand was shot but survived in an attempted robbery.

San Francisco had 18 million visitors last year, of whom four million were from overseas, with China a major growth market.

In terms of its 800,000-strong population, that’s more than Hong Kong on a per-capita basis, with 60 million tourists for a population of seven million.

Officials in San Francisco and Hong Kong support the tourist industry and point to the economic benefits in terms of things such as retail sales and hotel bookings.

The two cities have several other things in common.

Both have limited space and have experienced steep rises in the price of housing.

And there is resentment against newcomers moving in to live and work and against outsiders buying property.

Rising tourist arrivals add to the feeling that local people are being inconvenienced and squeezed out of their own neighborhoods and city.

Other cities – Vancouver, for example – are going through changes of this sort.

But San Francisco and Hong Kong seem to have a particular problem balancing the interests of the tourism industry with those of their residents.

In Hong Kong, where many visitors come from the mainland primarily to buy basic goods, the impact has been so severe in parts of the New Territories that protests have taken place.

The government has revised policy in order to reduce the number of mainlanders coming in on frequent shopping trips.

We have also seen a fall in the numbers coming to buy luxury products.

This is partly because of the Chinese government’s campaign against corruption and waste.

It is also because other destinations such as Japan and Europe are cheaper thanks to their weaker currencies, and offer a more varied experience.

This trend also probably reflects saturation of the market – there comes a point where there are simply too many shops selling watches or jewelry, and consumers don’t want or need to buy more.

Although the tourism industry worries about falling visitor numbers, many Hong Kong citizens openly welcome it.

The fact is that they do not feel that they get any benefits from this sort of tourism.

All they feel is the effects of high rents and crowded transport.

However, we are still seeing large numbers of ordinary tourists – many from Japan, Korea and Europe as well as the mainland – who are coming not simply to shop but to see and experience Hong Kong as a city.

Many of these visitors like to explore our older neighborhoods and even rural areas (mainlanders and Japanese are starting to enjoy hiking in our country parks).

They like to look around markets and traditional stores and try the food at out-of-the-way restaurants.

They are coming to experience our city and its heritage and culture.

I would like to think that most residents could at least welcome visitors like this, who appreciate our city and who can spread the word about it when they go home.

Sadly, however, even these “real” tourists – as opposed to shoppers – are drawing complaints in some particularly crowded neighborhoods.

Residents on the south side of Hong Kong Island and Hollywood Road complain about tourist buses parking on the road.

People in Tai O on Lantau and on Cheung Chau and Lamma feel swamped with visitors who have read about the islands in guide books.

Districts like Soho have become victims of their own success as trendy hubs for dining, art and other scenes.

In San Francisco’s Lombard Street, the city has hired ambassadors to patrol the area and politely encourage tourists to behave considerately.

In Hong Kong, the problem is more about transport and public space, but we need similarly imaginative solutions to the real problem, notably over-concentration of tourists in certain areas.

Otherwise, it is not fair on our own residents, not fair on the tourists, and – in terms of our reputation – not fair on Hong Kong as a whole.

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San Francisco’s Lombard Street, made famous around the world in movies, has tourism ambassadors who politely encourage visitors to be on their best behavior. Photo: Internet

Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress

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