Relax, we are not in a SARS situation

April 08, 2015 16:05
Mainland tourist arrivals are down and room rates have fallen but we are far from being in a SARS situation. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong tourism officials reacted to some scary headlines this past week by deciding to throw money at the problem.

When Easter rolled around with some dire numbers -- a 20 percent fall in mainland group tours and a 40 percent plunge in five-star hotel room rates -- officials lost no time countering the bad news with some good news of their own.

On Tuesday, the Tourism Board announced HK$56 million worth discounts and giveaways including free accommodation at a five-star hotel, first class air tickets, Michelin dinners and helicopter rides.

In many ways, these incentives are reminiscent of the Cathay Pacific-led “We love Hong Kong” campaign which helped the tourism industry recover from SARS in 2003.

It was similar to a mini bonanza that kicked off the Year of the Sheep, targeting visitors from across the border.

Are things really that bad?

It depends on whether one is in the tourism trade or an ordinary Hong Kong resident like me.

If you're like me, you'll enjoy the relative peace and quiet in our streets, a shorter wait for a restaurant seat and less congestion in our malls and shops.

The long Easter weekend produced five days of gorgeous weather for those of us who did not go to Japan to catch the cherry blossom.

Also, there was less hustle and bustle in border towns thanks Civic Passion’s anti-smuggling action that deterred illegal traders from the mainland.

But isn’t it supposed to be like this when mainlanders, who don't celebrate Easter, eschew travel and instead flock to cemeteries to sweep the tomb of their ancestors?

Sure, retail sales suffered and we had fewer visitors in the first quarter but the poor numbers did not stop Grand Hyatt from charging HK$3,000 a night.

But given an 11 percent increase in January and February arrivals to 11 million, the first-quarter figure is likely to top the 15.5 million in 2003 after a post-SARS campaign.

We are not in a SARS situation. We are far from having a hotel occupancy rate near 20 per cent and we are not likely to see a 68 per cent drop in May arrivals as happened in 2003

Readers may recall that the “We love Hong Kong” campaign, the first citywide attempt to boost tourism, was a successful publicity event.

But in terms of boosting visitor numbers, it was only able to improve arrivals by 10 per cent from May until the end of the year.

Overall visitor numbers in 2003 were down 6 per cent but the Hong Kong annual report concluded it was a nice performance given the challenges Hong Kong faced to begin with.

We have a different situation now, but the same logic applies.

Visitor numbers are on course to go up this year and we're likely to see a successful finish, barring a catastrophe.

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EJ Insight writer