Just passing through

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 February, 2008, 12:00am

The statistics tell a tale of unrivalled tourism success. Hong Kong has seen its visitor numbers treble in a decade to the point where they now outnumber the city's own residents by four to one and, on the face of it, surpass the tourism achievements of London and New York.

The local tourism industry has never had it so good. A record 28.1 million people visited the city last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), and the outlook for this year is even better, with up to 30.4 million expected.

It's a stellar statistic when compared to the 15 million tourists a year who visit London and the 7.25 million who go to New York. Malaysia received 20.9 million tourists last year, a rise of 19.5 per cent on 2006 but still far behind Hong Kong's figures. And Thailand, with all its beaches and laid-back charm, recorded a mere 13.9 million in 2006.

But the figures are arguably less impressive when one knows how they are arrived at, and some overseas tourism officials complain the method Hong Kong uses, which appears to cause confusion even on the official Beijing Olympics website, lacks credibility.

Part of Hong Kong's surge in tourism over the past 10 years - from 9.7 million to the current level - is attributable to the growing number of mainland visitors, who last year accounted for 15.4 million, or more than half of the total.

Their numbers have been boosted since the introduction of the Individual Visit Scheme in 2003, which made border crossings easier.

The disparity between arrivals in Hong Kong and other destinations is due to the HKTB's choice of the term 'visitor' rather than 'tourist'.

The UN World Travel Organisation (UNWTO) says a visitor is someone who is in and out of a territory within one day for reasons other than employment; a tourist stays at least one night.

Based on this definition, someone who crosses the border from Shenzhen into Hong Kong and returns the same day is a visitor but not a tourist. The same applies to a traveller who, while in transit at Hong Kong International Airport, clears immigration to do a bit of shopping for half a day.

And here lies the reason why Hong Kong's figures appear to soar above those of Malaysia and Thailand. As one Malaysian tourism official said: 'To put it quite simply, a tourist is a visitor - but not all visitors are tourists.'

Almost 40 per cent - or 11 million - of Hong Kong's 28.1 million visitors were same-day visitors, according to the UNWTO definitions, and the number is growing every year, rising by 16.8 per cent last year.

The number of overnight visitors to Hong Kong last year was 17.1 million.

Bob McKercher, of the Polytechnic University's School of Hotel and Tourism Management, said the UNWTO guidelines permitted the use of both definitions in collecting tourism statistics.

'Hong Kong follows the guidelines and is not doing anything untoward,' he said. 'How it records arrivals is in line with the UN's system of how arrivals should be recorded and it is laudable in that respect. The confusing thing is that there are different ways of recording arrivals used by different countries and sometimes it makes it hard to compare apples with apples.'

The Malaysian tourism official said: 'If Malaysia included the number of visitors, of course we would have a higher figure.

'A same-day visitor, more often than not, will not incur any tourist expenditure. Compare that to a tourist, who spends at least a day there. He will incur some tourist expenditure, especially when he stays in a hotel and eats at a restaurant.

'[This definition] gives our tourism industry more credibility as we only count the visitors who contribute value to the tourism industry.'

The HKTB began publishing its overnight and same-day visitor figures in 2000. In 2003 - the same year it was criticised for a lack of clarity in its arrivals statistics - it began publishing a breakdown of same-day visitors and tourists. But it has continued to keep the spotlight firmly on the visitor number.

In Hong Kong, the Immigration Department registers people who come into the city and passes the information on to the HKTB, which Professor McKercher sees as part of the problem. 'As it is, someone can come to Hong Kong, spend two nights here, go to Macau, come back to Hong Kong, go to Shenzhen for the night, come back and they'll be counted as three arrivals - but it's really all one trip,' he said.

Hong Kong is not alone in highlighting visitor rather than tourist numbers. According to the HKTB, Singapore, Japan and Macau also use visitor measures.

A spokeswoman for the HKTB said the board used the visitor figure because it more accurately reflected trends in tourism, particularly the growing phenomenon of one-day visits.

'We believe that given Hong Kong's roles as the region's premier aviation hub and gateway to mainland China, and the substantial value brought by same-day arrivals, the inclusion of same-day visitors in tourism figures is necessary in order to accurately reflect Hong Kong's tourism trend and the true economic contribution of tourism to Hong Kong.'

To support that point, the HKTB draws attention to the economic contribution the same-day visitor makes, each spending on average HK$1,258 last year, amounting to a total of HK$13.8 billion.

The Hong Kong Hotels Association, whose members derive almost no revenue from same-day visitors, is also quick to point out their value.

'Although, in some ways we are not particularly keen about the fact that more than 40 per cent are same-day visitors, they do not take up too much of Hong Kong's tourism and community infrastructure,' said James Lu Shien-kwai, the association's executive director.

'And they spend quite a lot of money collectively to help the economy, especially in retail and dining. It is not unusual for some businesses in the retail trade to register half of their business coming from them.

'But statistics are statistics and we cannot exclude same-day visitors because these are genuine visitors and they fall under the UNWTO definition of visitors.

'Although we would like to invite more of them to stay in our hotels, it is understandable that they return to their home base the same day, as most Hong Kong residents do when they visit Shenzhen, because the border is so close and so convenient and because transport is so readily available.'

UNWTO spokesman Marcelo Risi said both indicators - tourists and visitors - were important as they both reflected sources of revenue, but that to avoid confusion it was common practice to say which of the concepts was used in reports and to explain the differences.

'As with any statistical indicators, they each have their own value and reflect a demand for the destination,' Mr Risi said.

The HKTB spokeswoman said: 'The UNWTO has its own definition so when we provide information for them we follow that definition. When we provide ours, we have our definition and we have a breakdown showing same-day visitors.

'Same-day visitors are also tourists. They can choose not to go through immigration. If they choose to go through immigration, then they are tourists.' The board follows 'a principle of transparency and accuracy to present an accurate account of the value of our tourism industry', the spokeswoman said.

The fact that one country trumpets one type of figure while others rely on another measure confuses many. Even qualified observers appear to get it wrong.

In May 30, 2006, a report in the Shanghai Daily confused tourists with visitors in a report, saying: 'Hong Kong's tourist arrivals rose 9.5 per cent in April from a year earlier to 2.1 million, helped by an increase in visitors from China.'

And the official website for the Beijing Olympic Games says: 'The Hong Kong Tourism Board hopes to receive some 30 million tourists in 2008, 8 per cent more than in 2007.'

Even the Trade Development Council appears unable to make the distinction between visitors and tourists, reporting on its website that 'in 2007, tourist arrivals exceeded 28 million, up by more than 10 per cent year on year'.

The HKTB says it is the responsibility of those organisations to use and present the released data in a proper manner. However, when the South China Morning Post pointed out the misreporting of the figures, the spokeswoman said that in future the board would consider including the UNWTO's definition of tourist and visitor arrivals in its monthly statistical releases.