Relationship crystal clear

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2011, 12:00am


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Anyone looking for a convenient example of the long-standing ties between Austria and Hong Kong might well pick Swarovski, the company that manufactures exquisitely cut crystal and a range of related luxury products that grace so many homes in the city.

Swarovski was started in the 19th century in the Tyrol by a young glass cutter whose entrepreneurial bent and ambition have been mirrored by generations of Hongkongers who have themselves started a business and subsequently prospered.

And it was in the mid 19th century that the first Austrian diplomatic presence was established in the then Crown Colony. Although there have been a couple of intermissions in the decades that followed, the Austrian presence in Hong Kong is now firmly established, and the 700 or so Austrians who live here play an important part in the business, social and cultural life of the SAR.

Like Hong Kong, Austria - properly called Osterreich - is relatively small, with a population of around eight and a half million, and bordered by large neighbours.

Unlike Hong Kong, it is landlocked, however this has not stopped it becoming the 12th richest country in the world in terms of gross domestic product per capita, with a well-developed social market economy and an enviably high standard of living.

While the country's main trading partners are still in Europe or the United States, there is a growing trend to do business in Asia, and in particular in Hong Kong.

'Of all the Chinese provinces and regions, Hong Kong remains the number one partner for Austria, as the first port of call for trade with southern China,' says Gerhard Alois Maynhardt, who has been Consul General of Austria to Hong Kong and Macau for the past two years. 'Hong Kong is the fourth most important trading hub in Asia for Austria.'

Apart from Swarovski, other Austrian companies like Riedel - which specialises in making wine glasses - are prospering in the region. And in a similar vein, Austrian wine is winning a growing number of fans both in Hong Kong and mainland China, where wine drinking has become popular.

'Austrian wine tends to be white, and is not mass produced so it tends to appeal to a very discerning market,' says Maynhardt.

Following the global financial downturn of 2009, trade between Austria and Hong Kong took a turn for the better last year, increasing by 23 per cent to Euro540 million (HK$5.8 billion) in exports, compared with Euro360 million in imports, making a healthy trade balance in Austria's favour.

There are 150 Austrian companies registered in Hong Kong,' says Maynhardt.

'The main areas are the higher end of the value-added chain, such as infrastructure projects and environmental projects employing biofuel and solar energy.

Other areas include the banking, financial and insurance service sectors, and specialised products of the luxury sector.

'Among Austrian export products one will find highly sophisticated goods such as electronic circuits and components, electronic testing equipment, construction equipment, printing machinery, but also agricultural products too.'

With such a long history of involvement in Hong Kong, the Austrian community is very well integrated in society and is generally prosperous and successful.

'A considerable number of Austrians are in leading positions in Hong Kong's hotel and tourism industry,' says Maynhardt.

'In general, Austrian executives use Hong Kong as a base for projects in China, although some arrived and stayed, like the owner of the Kee Club in Central.'

The executives and entrepreneurs of tomorrow are also making significant inroads in Hong Kong. Increasing numbers of Austrian students come to study at Hong Kong's universities, drawn both by the high standards of education, and a general feeling that Hong Kong and the mainland are the places to be in the future.

'But up to 100 Hong Kong students go to spend a term or two at Austrian universities every year,' says Maynhardt.

'Surprisingly, it is not the conservatories that attract the lion's share but the University for Applied Sciences, the Vienna University for Economics and Business Administration or specialised institutions in the hotel and tourism industry.'

Whether any of today's students become the Swarovski of tomorrow remains to be seen, but given that ties between Austria and Hong Kong have been growing stronger for the best part of a century and a half, the future looks good.