The unveiling of travel industry reforms, including an independent watchdog, to be tabled before a Legislative Council panel today followed a prediction that the number of visitors to the city could more than double to 100 million a year in the next decade. The two events are unrelated, yet complementary. The government has proposed a new travel industry authority to take over from a self-regulatory body of industry insiders who failed to put their house in order. This follows a series of scandals involving the treatment of mainland tour groups, including forced shopping, rip-offs and abuse by guides who rely on commissions.
Mainlanders already account for about 70 per cent of visitors, and it is they who are expected to drive the doubling of tourist numbers predicted by Jack So Chak-kwong, convener of the working group on tourism under the Economic Development Commission. So also called for a doubling of the number of hotel rooms as tourist numbers soared, especially after the opening of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge and the high-speed cross-border railway.
This has revived calls for limits to be placed on the growth of tourism after a peak-season influx earlier this year taxed hotel and other tourist facilities, and caused resentment among locals over shopping and overcrowding. Given the dominance of compatriots in the growth, the debate is not so much a question of whether there are too many tourists, but whether there are too many mainland tourists.
Hong Kong is one of the few places where there is talk of too many tourists. This does raise the question of why complaints about tourists overwhelmingly target mainlanders when there are few about major campaigns to grow tourism from the West. To be sure, tourist officials want to promote Hong Kong as Asia's world city. But the contrast smacks of discrimination.
Former Hong Kong Tourism Board chairman James Tien Pei-chun has rightly pointed out that tourism is the city's only pillar industry with sustained growth. It is being driven by mainlanders, now ranked as the world's biggest spenders on overseas travel ahead of Germans and Americans. Hong Kong prides itself as an open city in which free trade is a core value. The flow of mainland tourism, and our appetite for it, will find their own levels through market forces. In the meantime, can we really afford to drive them into the arms of London, New York or Paris instead?