Turning the tables on a tarnished reputation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2007, 12:00am

Hong Kong people are good at dealing with a crisis. We have a strong, seemingly innate, ability to remain positive in the face of challenging circumstances and to turn adversity to advantage. We demonstrated that ability during the Asian economic downturn in 1997. We proved it again in the 2003 Sars crisis. And we have shown it repeatedly in scores of smaller crises.

As the new chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, one challenge I faced was the scandal over some shops ripping off mainland tourists that broke just ahead of the annual Labour Day 'golden week' holiday, threatening to dent tourist arrivals.

What would have been a calamity for our tourism was averted. There were 886,674 visitors, up 22 per cent on the same period last year, and more than 60 per cent were from the mainland. No one knows exactly how we escaped a slump. Perhaps we overestimated the mainland reaction to the negative reports on CCTV. Perhaps people decided they would not be put off visiting Hong Kong, but would be cautious.

However, part of the reason was the positive way Hong Kong reacted and the decisive action taken leading up to 'golden week'. We neither shut our eyes, nor attempted to deny anything was wrong. Instead, we acknowledged the fault, rallied and did our best to fix it before any lasting damage was inflicted. Our government announced it would do all it could to tackle the problem. Police and customs officials acted swiftly against rogue shops. And the travel industry assured mainland visitors Hong Kong remained safe and tourist-friendly.

We pulled out all the stops to counter our damaged reputation so that any outsiders could see our city was determined to combat a dishonest handful, and was not a destination where cheating is commonplace.

It is too early, of course, to know if any long-term harm has been done to Hong Kong's reputation. We must remain vigilant against rogue shops and continually look at ways to boost our appeal to tourists.

When a public interest issue arises in Hong Kong, there is lively debate over how we can improve practices and better manage our tourism industry. Much of that debate has produced positive ideas. Some of it, sadly, has been partisan and snide.

Rather than contribute original proposals, some legislators have accused the Tourism Board of mismanaging its finances and accused the Liberal Party of having too much influence over the board.

The board, which refuted the first accusation, is a public body that follows principles in using public funding and resources, and adheres strictly to financial monitoring laws. As to the second claim, I would point out that, of the 20 board members, only two apart from myself are from the Liberal Party - Vincent Fang Kang and Ronnie Ho Pak-ting. And these are not political appointments - they are there because of what they know and what they can contribute. Mr Fang is the legislator for the wholesale and retail sectors. Mr Ho is Travel Industry Council chairman and a senior figure in the tourism sector. To imply that Liberal Party members might abuse our positions to promote the party's interests, rather than those of the tourism industry, is ludicrous and without foundation.

I hope that, under my chairmanship, board membership will include representatives from more political parties. I would be especially pleased to recommend members of the Democratic Party to join this year.

Tourism is for the common good of Hong Kong. Our city's success as a destination for all visitors benefits every business, political party, taxpayer and individual. I sincerely hope we can put aside political differences and pull together as a community to find imaginative new ways to drive our tourism industry forward, and continue the momentum of success achieved against the odds during 'golden week'.

James Tien Pei-chun is chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board and the Liberal Party