Tourist rage: time to look beyond just numbers and focus on the experience

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 1:26am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 September, 2015, 1:26am

It is hard to tell how to apportion blame between China's economic slowdown, a crackdown on corruption which curbs conspicuous consumption, and protests against the impact of mainland visitors on the daily lives of Hongkongers.

But we do know that together with the trend of mainlanders travelling further afield, all these factors have combined to bring about a sustained reversal of growth in the city's tourist numbers and retail sales.

About 4.92 million tourists visited in July, 8.4 per cent fewer than in July last year. The decline reflects the fall in the number of mainland visitors, by 9.8 per cent to 3.85 million.

With negative sentiment from a stock-market slump completing a perfect storm, those figures impact directly on retail sales, which dropped for the fifth straight month in July by 2.8 per cent year on year to HK$37.6 billion.

Tourism and retail account for 4 per cent and 5 per cent respectively of the city's GDP, but 9 per cent and 7 per cent respectively of the workforce, or about 570,000 jobs.

It is therefore easy to see why Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has pledged to seek ways to tackle the fall in mainland visitors, despite simmering resentment among locals.

After the latest figures he appealed to Hongkongers to refrain from protests, a sentiment echoed in a meeting with Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office director Wang Guangya, who said protests against parallel traders and similar activities or remarks had hurt mainlanders' feelings.

The contraction at the luxury end of the retail market is not without a silver lining, for example falls in stratospheric rents.

Since the decline is partly cyclical and nearly four million mainlanders a month still visit, it may seem contentious to say we need more tourists when it remains such a sensitive issue. But the government has a wider perspective.

Tourism is one of Hong Kong's four pillar industries. We support its development in principle.

But discrimination against mainlanders goes against Hong Kong's core values.

The government should try to learn from the past and do its best to appear responsive to local people's needs.

A good start would be for officials and business people to widen their focus beyond numbers alone to the quality of the tourist experience and the spending power of visitors.

Numbers cannot rise indefinitely within the city's small size and residents cannot be expected to remain patient forever with a tide of out-of-town shoppers for everyday items.

Government and business have to adapt through innovation and diversification, for the sake of the economy and jobs.