Thinking fast and slow: On Hong Kong as a tourist hub

October 10, 2023 12:30
Photo: RTHK

Hong Kong recorded almost 13 million arrivals in the first six months of 2023 – a paltry fraction as compared with pre-COVID days.

The political turmoil in 2019, three years’ worth of lockdown in face of the pandemic, and the subsequent geopolitical uncertainty and volatility spurred by growing Sino-West tensions, have collectively culminated in the seeming cratering of Hong Kong’s tourism industry. The ‘mojo’ that had once sustained this very inexorable machine, has apparently vanished.

Whilst the latest numbers – on tourist numbers in August and September -- suggest that our city could well be stumbling slowly and steadily on a path of recovery, it remains to be seen as to whether Hong Kong can, in fact, forge a new path forward as a tourism hub within Greater Bay Area, and China at large, in the post-pandemic era.

A significant number of measures have been rolled out, in an attempt to court tourists. From campaigns such as ‘Happy Hong Kong’ to ‘Night Vibes Hong Kong’ (excellently translated, to be fair), to initiatives such as the handing-out of free air tickets to those who would take them up and travel to Hong Kong, it is evident that the relevant authorities are trying. It would be unfair to posit that they aren’t. Indeed, these efforts should be applauded for the ideals for which they aspire.

Yet it would be futile to speak of revitalising the state of tourism in this city, without first engaging in a necessary diagnosis of why tourists aren’t coming to Hong Kong.

A part of this, I suspect, has to do with the exodus of service professionals and hospitality workers during the pandemic (also induced by a number of recent events that have taken to this city) – a recent estimate by the Federation of Hotel Owners suggested that there remain 9,000 job vacancies in the existing job market, indicative of a fundamental and severe shortage in much-needed manpower to meet the demand. A confluence of forces, including a desire to stay and be with families during the pandemic across the border, declining interest in working in the high-pressure and relatively low-pay work conditions (when adjusting for the exorbitant costs of living in Hong Kong), as well as politico-ideological considerations, has meant that it is increasingly difficult for employers in the industry to identify, cultivate, and train up skilled professionals who can genuinely serve their customers with aplomb and adept skills.

The net upshot is a decline in the quality of service from our hospitality industry – through no fault of individual workers, mind you, for this is a structural and systemic problem. Stymying the problem requires us to import labour – opening up and easing migration laws for service professionals from Southeast Asia and beyond mainland China, where many alternative sources of employment for hospitality workers can be and are increasingly found.

Yet there’s more to this. For one, Hong Kong must reckon with the fact that there is a growing number of equally, if not more attractive, tourist destinations within Greater Asia. From Taipei to Shanghai, from Seoul to Kuala Lumpur (where I have just spent half a week), cities around Asia have seized upon the pandemic to revitalise, upgrade, and systemically transform themselves to brace for a heightened number of visitors and tourists. From introducing urban renewal projects aimed at uplifting the façade and appearance of dilapidated quarters, to implementing comprehensive cultural and eco-tourism initiatives aimed at drawing in tourists with unconventional preferences, it is clear that our regional counterparts are not sitting on their laurels. Indeed, they are acting most swiftly to meet the pent-up demand of those who were unable to travel to Hong Kong due to the two and a half years of restrictive quarantine measures.

In ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out the very fact that we tend to think in two broad modes. The first mode is fast, instinctive, and emotionally rooted. The second mode is slower, involves more reflection, and critical internal deliberation and weighing-up of pros and cons. Both are equally vital modes of reasoning. Yet it would be erroneous to think that either of them could make do without the other.

So suppose we can typify measures such as the Night Bazaar and other, more instantly deliverable (albeit with questionable results) campaigns as a ‘System I’ measure. What’s missing in the status quo are ‘System II’ measures – measures that clearly require more deliberation, more planning, and more trial-and-error and internal apparaisal, prior to their being rolled out. Deliberation is needed to push us to engage in some serious soul-searching and identification and championing of the unique virtues of Hong Kong as a tourist destination – the incredible complementarity and synergy between its sweeping, luscious countryside and hustle-and-hustle in the city centre, the immaculate compactness and convenience (with the stellar MTR connectivity), as well as its multicultural dynamism and pluralism. Deliberation is indeed of vital importance, when it comes to gauging and targetting the demands and needs of prospective visitors, and channelling their thoughts and preferences into actual practices on the ground. We need more System II thinking at this day and age.

A low hanging-fruit would be for the government to deep dive into the interests of different categories of tourists – e.g. eco-tourists, tourists intrigued by culture and history, tourists who are driven by a fascination with the intellectual and esoteric. It is not the case that all foreign visitors and tourists are looking for more, and more, and more of the same shopping destinations. Indeed, we should make use of exceptional facilities such as the West Kowloon Cultural District, Tai Kwun, or even the Museum of Arts, to lure in tourists who are keen to gain a glimpse into contemporary Chinese culture at the East-West watershed that is Hong Kong. Tourists would only come back if there is something for them to see, and if the costs are not too prohibitive. Short of significant reforms in the above directions, it would be hard to envision a world where Hong Kong can pull ahead of its stiff competition, and emerge victorious once more in this cutthroat competition for tourists.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Assistant Professor, HKU