Tourism officials have no idea about the push and shove of daily life

Michael Chugani says those pushing for more mainland tourists have no idea how unbearable daily life already is for the average person

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 3:36am

Last Saturday, at 2pm, I took the East Rail line to Lo Wu. As we neared the Shenzhen border, the overcrowded train filled up even more, mostly with mainlanders, some of them parallel-goods traders. By the time we reached Sheung Shui, the train was so packed I thought it would endanger us all if more people boarded. But the platform was overflowing with passengers who fought their way in. One furious local who squeezed in hurled obscenities at a mainland woman whose parallel goods had taken up a lot of space. She hurled obscenities back.

When I returned the next morning, the Hong Kong side of the border crossing was packed with mainland visitors lining up to enter. Some impatient ones swore loudly. A Hong Kong policeman ordered them to shut up.

I am writing this in the hope that Jack So Chak-kwong, head of the Economic Development Commission's task force on tourism, will read it. He wants to double the number of hotel rooms in the next 10 years for an expected jump in mainland visitors. People like So and our government policymakers rarely, if ever, ride the East Rail. They have chauffeur-driven cars. The angry scenes I saw have become a regular occurrence as mainland visitor numbers swell. It is a time bomb but our policymakers do not hear the ticking.

Officials say the soaring numbers of mainland tourists have kept our economy afloat by creating numerous local jobs. But on the day I read that a tripling of the rent to HK$1.58 million a month had priced McDonald's out of Causeway Bay's Russell Street - a shopping strip of upscale stores catering to rich mainlanders - I also read that many Hongkongers were living in cubicles tinier than coffins. If hitching the health of our economy to mainland tourists creates prosperity, why do we still have a million poor people, many in subdivided slum flats, even though tourist numbers have swelled?

Cosmetics retail chain Sa Sa will take over the McDonald's lease. Sa Sa's bosses have reaped billions after Hong Kong opened its doors wide to mainland tourists. But have they trickled a fair share of their fortunes down to their workers? I'll wager most still live in cubicles or public housing subsidised by taxpayers.

The truth is that mainland visitor growth has mostly enriched landlords and retailers such as Chow Tai Fook, the jewellery chain store owned by New World Development tycoon Cheng Yu-tung. Not much of the money is trickling down.

But forget about the truth. Is it wise to make our economy so reliant on mainland tourists? Surely, we should also expand it to give it a firmer footing. According to So, visitors could double to 100 million, mostly from the mainland. That's over eight million a month, more than our total population. He must be loopy if he thinks tiny Hong Kong can handle that.

Yes, we need tourist dollars, but when our policymakers build more hotels, bridges and high-speed rail links to increase tourism, do they think about the little things that ordinary Hongkongers must endure as a result, such as overcrowded streets and MTR trains?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.