Regulate tourist numbers for Hong Kong's benefit

Ian Brownlee says the overwhelming tourist flood in recent years should persuade officials to regulate the flow and refocus on quality growth, so that local needs are not compromised

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 April, 2013, 3:23am

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has initiated a review of Hong Kong's tourism policy. It must be a radical reassessment, as the old model is no longer relevant. Continued growth in tourism is unrealistic and it must be stabilised.

Until recently, all tourism was seen as beneficial. It is inevitable that large numbers of outsiders have consequences beyond creating employment and income. Like anywhere else, Hong Kong has a limited "cultural capacity" to accommodate tourists. Economic benefits now appear to be outweighed by the negative cultural impact from large numbers of visitors.

Hong Kong tourism figures have grown rapidly in recent years. About 50 million tourists come to Hong Kong every year. On average, about 1 million non-residents are in our city every day - creating demand that has not been planned for.

During tourism peaks, there are even more people on our streets. At Lunar New Year, 2.3 million people entered the city, of which 750,000 were from the mainland. Overall visitor numbers over the Lunar New Year were up 21 per cent year on year.

Recent annual increases have been large - 16 per cent from 2011 to last year, and 16.4 per cent from 2010 to 2011. It is the massive increase of numbers in the past two to three years that has forced the issue to come to a head.

Hong Kong is struggling to absorb the impact of these tourists. Shopping centres are dominated by high-price goods that are no longer relevant to the daily needs of local people. Prices of services, accommodation and property are being driven up by what the outsiders pay, rather than "real" demand. Famous local shops and restaurants are closing because they can no longer compete.

The effect is now being felt beyond the shopping centres, with tourists swamping campsites, Repulse Bay and country parks, dominating areas that are also places for local recreation. The complaints are that Hong Kong is overcrowded, tourists are now everywhere, and there is no place to escape. To quote columnist Michael Chugani, "Everything has a breaking point. How many more mainland tourists can we handle or actually need? Is it worth trading our way of life - and quality of life - to boost tourist dollars?"

It's time to set new policies so that tourism here is sustainable - accommodated with minimal costs to the community. Any tourism always incurs costs, whether it is in the allocation of resources such as land, the disposal of waste, traffic congestion or pollution.

Policies must include social goals, not just economic ones, so that tourism is seen in the context of what is good for the lifestyle of Hong Kong residents.

An example is the huge area of land set aside for tourism activities and hotel development at Kai Tak. The cruise terminal has already removed a big area of prime land from use by Hong Kong people, with questionable economic benefit, given the total public resources it has consumed. A further six hectares is reserved for hotel development along the waterfront.

A rational reassessment of the best use of this land is needed. It could be used for housing Hong Kong people, which must be a greater priority than meeting tourist needs. Setting aside the land for community use or as open space would improve the quality of life for local residents.

The contribution of tourism to the Hong Kong economy, at about 5 per cent of gross domestic product, is actually quite small, yet its negative impact on the use of resources and on society is now significant. Hong Kong should choose to develop its other sectors, instead of tourism.

It's time to set goals that change tourism from an endless pursuit of more visitors to growth that focuses on quality and sustainability, and which offers the community the best benefits with the least impact. We should avoid low-quality, low-yield tourism that consumes too many resources at the expense of local needs.

The following policies could be introduced:

  • Stabilise the number of visitors to approximately 50 million per annum;
  • Allow growth only in proportion to the increase in the permanent population of Hong Kong;
  • Retain tourism's contribution to GDP at 5 per cent by paying more attention to high-value visitors, particularly business visitors;
  • Don't provide scarce public resources, such as land and financing, for additional tourism facilities or hotel development, but spend on local needs;
  • Price mass tourism out of the market to provide a greater return to Hong Kong investors and workers.

To achieve sustainability, there is a need to adopt a completely different approach and accept that there is a capacity limit for a small place like Hong Kong.


Ian Brownlee is a planning consultant assisting non-governmental organisations and developers