Hong Kong’s tourism industry has been distorted by political factors in the past decade after Beijing allowed mainlanders to travel to Hong Kong under a special scheme to boost the local economy.
It amounted to political intervention in a free market and led to an influx of Chinese visitors into Hong Kong, affecting domestic interests and worsening the travel experience of tourists from other countries.
With China’s economy slowing and many Hongkongers increasingly protective of their own interests, it’s time to return the tourism industry to the market by ridding it of politics.
The industry has seen a sharp decline in Chinese tourists, especially after the rise of localism, but the fact is that mainlanders still visit Hong Kong for shopping, sightseeing or to watch live concerts.
More than 200,000 mainlanders arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday, the first day of a three-day Labor Day weekend, according to the Immigration Department.
The figure was up 14 percent from the first day of last year’s holiday, beating industry forecasts.
The latest figures from the Hong Kong Tourism Board show that despite a 4.3 percent year-on-year decrease in overall numbers to 4.2 million in March and a 6.9 percent dip to three million in arrivals from the mainland, visitors from non-China countries were up 2.8 percent.
There was growth in both short and long-haul markets.
For example, visitors from Indonesia and Canada were up 14.1 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively in March.
So, is it possible for the Hong Kong tourism industry to explore the huge potential of those markets to lessen its dependence on the mainland and rid itself of interference from Beijing?
It was quite strange that local tourism trade groups were pitching to Chinese visitors in Golden Bauhinia Square last weekend with signs that said “One Sky, One China”, “I love stability”, “Hong Kong prosperity is the responsibility of all”, “Protect our city with prosperity and serving visitors well”.
They were also distributing cigarette bags. But why cigarette bags?
It might have been a concession to the Chinese visitors’ smoking habit, never mind that Hong Kong discourages smoking.
Even Hong Kong people are not sure what tourism officials and industry leaders want to do to boost the sector without relying on China.
Last week, it was reported that Leung Chun-Ying was considering asking the Beijing authorities to open more cities to the individual visit scheme.
From their perspective, Chinese tourists don’t care about localism. They have similar issues at home.
Their purpose in coming to Hong Kong is to enjoy themselves. Politics is the last thing on their minds.
They see Hong Kong as a huge supermarket for genuine daily necessities.
Whether that kind of behavior can be considered tourism activity is open to debate.
Tourism officials were quick to say that Leung was merely thinking aloud when he mentioned the idea of opening the individual visit scheme to more Chinese cities.
They said Leung was having a private chat with some industry leaders.
Still, it did little to remove suspicions that the tourism industry is part of Hong Kong’s political duty to Beijing.
The government could argue that the poor performance of the tourism industry is a direct result of the rise of localism and that the only way to reverse the trend is by nipping the idea in the bud.
But it refuses to admit that the whole problem is due to wrong policies.
Also, the industry continues to ignore the fact that the quality of tourism services has fallen.
For instance, forced shopping has emerged as a chief complaint for mainlanders who are often victimized by operators who offer cheap tours.
These cheap tours turn out to be many times more expensive when tourists are hauled to jewelry shops and forced to buy because that’s how operators claw back revenue.
The problem, which has been around for more than a decade, has not been dealt with because the government and the tourism industry won’t touch powerful vested interests.
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