Hong Kong should diversify both its sources of tourism and what it offers visitors, as it grapples with the dilemma of how to balance the economic benefits brought by the rising numbers of mainland tourists with the strain of accommodating them.
Tourism is one of the city's pillar industries, and mainland visitors have been its major driver over the past decade. The industry and related businesses contributed 15.2 per cent to Hong Kong's gross domestic product and generated some 463,000 jobs in 2011, according to data from the World Travel & Tourism Council.
Hong Kong's tourism and retail landscape have benefited much from mainland visitors. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had in fact proposed in his election manifesto that the government should "enhance clearance efficiency at our border checkpoints to facilitate Pearl River Delta residents progressively changing the nature of their visit from occasional tourism to frequent visits for daily consumption spending".
But he made no mention of this idea in his maiden policy address in January. The reason is, of course, that the influx of mainland tourists has led to increasing resentment among locals who see the city's resources being overwhelmed.
Making matters worse, some individual visitors are parallel-goods traders, who buy goods in Hong Kong and resell them on the mainland, leading to shortages in goods such as baby formula, and skyrocketing shop rents.
Leung's idea is not new; day visitors who cross borders to shop are common in some other places, including Canada and Singapore. Thanks to lower prices and a strong Singapore dollar, Singaporean shoppers go to Malaysia to stock up on necessities, particularly during the holidays. And when the Canadian dollar is at par, or close to par, Canadians living near the US border make a day trip to Seattle for everything from bread and fuel to new vehicles.
However, we seldom hear residents in Malaysia and Seattle complain about their resources being overwhelmed by these same-day visitors. Part of the reason is that Malaysia is big in terms of physical and natural resources, with a population of 29 million, compared with Singapore's 5.3 million population.
As a city of tourism, Hong Kong welcomes people from around the world. Some 16.6 million people visited in 2002, before the relaxation of travel visa requirements for mainland residents.
Last year, Hong Kong saw a record 48.6 million tourist arrivals, driven by a 24 per cent increase of mainland tourists from a year earlier, who made up 72 per cent of the total.
Should Hong Kong reposition itself as a tourism destination? Some say we should not rely too much on one source of visitors. What about the US and Europe? The former has not recovered from the downturn while the latter is still mired in a debt crisis.
But we can do more to remain attractive to other tourists, including business travellers, visitors from Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines, as well as visitors here for the Mice (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) business. For instance, we should enhance Hong Kong's appeal as a cruise destination once the Kai Tak terminal becomes operational around June.
It's also high time that the government looked to diversify and encompass all market niches, from Mice facilities to tourism infrastructure, which need to be improved.
Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung is a legislative councillor in the commercial (first) functional constituency