As arrivals slow, Hong Kong's tourism authorities must focus on high-end visitors
Tourism is a big deal for Hong Kong. As one of our city's four pillar industries, it accounts for 5 per cent of GDP and employs almost 7 per cent of the workforce. But the industry is also highly competitive and prone to a host of forces, from weather to politics to the global economic outlook. A drop in arrival numbers over the past two months is certainly cause for concern, although a sustained strategy of innovation and creativity is bound to keep our market share strong.
Hong Kong is, after all, a tourism success story. Last year, we had 60.8 million visitors, about 8.4 times the population. Other governments look to our winning ways for inspiration and their use of that knowledge may well have contributed to the year-on-year decrease of 2.9 per cent in visitor numbers last month. Overall tourist arrivals in March fell 8.7 per cent.
Especially noticeable was a 10.6 per cent drop in solo mainland visitors, a figure tourism officials worry will worsen as new rules restricting Shenzhen arrivals grow in impact. But the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) in South Korea was also blamed for a fall of 6.3 per cent from other countries. A weaker yen, the mainland's anti-corruption drive and anti-mainland sentiment have also dented previous hopes of hosting 70 million visitors in 2017. Tourism Board officials will meet soon to revise the previous target of 6.4 per cent growth for this year.
But they have not been complacent; a promotional push is under way on the mainland highlighting Hong Kong's hospitality and a number of events are planned for coming months, among them an endurance cycling race, a wine and dine festival and WinterFest in December. But there is no need to panic; the groundwork putting Hong Kong firmly on the tourism map has already been done. A series of major infrastructure projects under way or finished, among them the cruise terminal, a huge shopping mall at the airport, the bridge to Zhuhai and Macau, the West Kowloon arts district and high-speed rail project will in coming years prove their worth in bringing visitors.
But focusing on numbers alone does not make for success. Hong Kong also has to look at the quality of its tourism and the spending power of visitors. Our city's small size means that it is unsustainable for numbers to rise indefinitely; capacity is limited and so, too, is the patience of residents in some districts for the tide of out-of-town shoppers. Officials have to look beyond short-term gains towards higher-end tourism growth.