There must be a limit to mainland visitor numbers

Hong Kong needs to ensure that its tourism development is sustainable and benefits locals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 7:37am

The city's economy was stagnant in 2003, before a new policy allowed mainlanders to visit Hong Kong as individuals. The resulting increase was dramatic. The number of mainland visitors rose from 6.8 million in 2002 to 12.25 million in 2004 and to 28.1 million last year, the Tourism Board reports.The total is forecast to rise further this year.

But Hong Kong was not well prepared for such an increase, either physically or mentally. A sense of frustration, and negativism towards mainland visitors has spread.

Our city is already congested enough with its population of seven million, but now we have an additional 200,000 to 300,000 visitors every day. Our ability to absorb this flood has been pushed to the limit. The tourists have outgrown the increase in the number of hotel rooms, pushing up prices.

This has made Hong Kong too expensive for many visitors. Mainlanders make up 70 per cent of all arrivals, which is not conducive to promoting Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan city.

We welcome tourists, but it would be better if they came from a variety of places to help develop a more healthy tourism culture.

Our city landscape has been altered to meet the needs of mainland visitors, who are interested in shopping and more shopping. There are simply too many stores selling expensive watches, jewellery, cosmetics and milk powder.

Other shops have been driven away, either to the outskirts or upper floors, or out of existence because of skyrocketing rents which only benefit landlords.

Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui have changed profoundly and now seem detached and emotionally remote from local residents.

Although the increase in arrival numbers provides momentum for our economic growth, Hongkongers do not feel any benefit. Instead, there are more troubles than ever. Things are getting more costly, transport has become more crowded and shopping choices are narrower. I can sometimes appreciate how annoyed people feel.

We welcome visitors, but there must be a limit and a threshold. If there is no fresh effort to improve the quality of our services, the number of visitors should be capped.

In the past few years, I have taken part in several projects that seek to understand the well-being of Macau residents. Despite an impressive growth in their gross domestic product, which is now higher than Hong Kong's, are Macau residents happier?

Salary increases cannot keep pace with the even greater increases in housing prices and various commodities. Young people choose to work in casinos for higher wages rather than pursue their aspirations in other areas or continue their studies at university.

One Macau resident told me that if he could have a choice, he would like to see the return of the old Macau, where people were friendlier, not so busy and psychologically better. Such is the irony of a stronger economy.

Unfortunately, we can't turn the clock back, but we can make the transition to having more mainlanders around us less bumpy and more beneficial to a greater number of people. We need to ensure our tourism development is sustainable.

To be fair, no country or city can accommodate such an influx of visitors within a few years without any hiccups. Based on our strengths and constraints, it would be better to go for quality rather than quantity in our services as a way to survival.

Paul Yip Siu-fai is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong