The Individual Visit Scheme launched a decade ago has facilitated visits to Hong Kong by millions of mainland Chinese, greatly benefiting the city. However, recent controversies associated with the infant milk formula shortage, the very crowded malls, and the full capacity of theme parks during Lunar New Year have generated some adverse public comments, with some calling for a halt to the scheme and others demanding the cancellation of multi-entry visas for mainland visitors. In short, some locals have said mainlanders are unwelcome as they create social problems.
On the face of it, the influx of mainlanders seems to be unmanageable. On taking a deeper look, it is evidently more an issue of management than capacity - how can we better divert and manage visitor flow so that it does not concentrate in several locations, especially during a few peak holiday periods?
The current debate about the Individual Visit Scheme is timely. The government should review the situation to better prepare Hong Kong to fully capture the opportunities arising from the Express Rail Link and the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Diverting and managing the flow of visitors is not an insurmountable challenge. It can be achieved through enhancing connectivity between attractions, particularly during the peak season. This requires adopting a more co-ordinated approach to promoting the city overseas.
The problem faced by Lantau tourism operators brings this to the fore. Currently, a visitor wishing to go to Hong Kong Disneyland from Hong Kong International Airport has to change transport modes several times. Or, if a tourist wants to visit Noah's Ark, they need to first travel to Tsing Yi. This creates confusion for tourists and even locals.
Lantau attractions operators have been seeking ways to resolve the connectivity problems. However, without government support, it is often just a patchwork of stop-gap measures that cannot be sustained.
One way to address the problem is to make it easier for transport operators to run connecting routes among attractions. Currently, tendering procedures are strictly adhered to, with schedules and fares fixed for every single route, which operators find inflexible and commercially unviable. The end result is a lack of interest while the existing infrastructure remains unused. To help tourism, the government needs to be more flexible and consider introducing pilot schemes to encourage tender submissions.
With improved connectivity among attractions on Lantau, its capacity for receiving visitors would be enhanced. With this, the government could also consider opening the Skypier ferry terminal at the airport to allow guests from Macau and the Pearl River Delta to enter the city via the airport, hence relieving pressure on other checkpoints.
Promotional efforts can also help divert visitors by spreading arrivals more evenly throughout the year. Hong Kong Disneyland's experience shows that this is extremely helpful, particularly during peak seasons. Through a variety of promotions targeting different markets, the resort succeeded in spreading visitor arrivals and the low season has been shortened from 120 days to 19. We are certain other attractions could do the same.
Shopping, food and dining is a big draw for visitors, but Hong Kong offers much more. We need to promote the variety of our offerings. Hong Kong needs more overnight, high-spending family tourists. We can attract them by publicising what each attraction offers and adjusting our overseas promotional themes slightly.
Tens of millions of high-spending overnight tourists from the Pearl River Delta are expected to arrive in the city via the Express Rail Link and the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai Bridge. If they all converge in Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, these areas will become even more crowded. This is only two to three years away.
As an option, the government can consider using Lantau as a holding area. As long as we develop the area properly, our guests will be happy to shop, wine and dine there before returning home or going into the city centre.
Our members are working together to see how we can best help address the tourism issues now. We strongly support the appeal made by the chairman-designate of the Tourism Board, Peter Lam Kin-ngok, to attract overnight high-spending tourists from wealthier cities in northern China. As long as we improve the connectivity among attractions, the existing "crowding" issue can be resolved.
We will do our duty to train our workforce to help Hong Kong maintain its world-class service standards. Meanwhile, connectivity and management of tourist flow should be addressed by the government to enhance tourists' experience and bring in more tourist dollars to boost our economy.
B.C. Lo is vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions