Tourism needs to strike right balance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am


With tourism one of the world's fastest growing industries, no one wants to miss out. For decades, it has been an economic lifeline for Hong Kong's retail, hotel, transport and catering industries. When we boosted our Sars-ravaged economy in 2003 by opening the door to millions of solo visitors from the mainland, it was hailed as a step forward.

Now the verdict on the Individual Visit Scheme is clouded. True, the influx of cash-rich tourists has filled hotels and restaurants and helped push the economy to new heights.

But all this comes at a price. The ever-increasing demand for luxury brands has pushed up property prices and rents to a level unaffordable to small business outlets. That means neighbourhood shops are put out of business and the unique characters of districts destroyed. The demand for high-end products has extended to household goods like formula milk powder and toiletries. Social tension has risen as the scheme is abused by mothers-to-be who seek to gain residency for their children by giving birth in Hong Kong. These negative impacts are not to be ignored.

Increasingly, whether the scheme should be extended to more mainland cities is a subject of public debate. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has shared concerns about disruption to people's livelihoods but did not rule out asking Beijing to expand the scheme should the local economy take a turn for the worse.

Historically, Hong Kong's tourism thrives on openness and hospitality. There is no reason why we should not open our door to travellers from different corners. The right balance is more likely to be struck via market forces than government intervention. It could be dangerous to send a message that visitors from particular areas are not welcome. If they choose to go elsewhere, the city will suffer in the end.