The first signs of a fall-off in tourist numbers after the transition were always predictable and not expected to cause long term concern. Not only were mainland visitors prevented from visiting in the weeks leading up to the handover, but uncertainty surrounding the changes naturally brought about a 'wait and see' approach from other foreign tourists. The latest obstacles facing Hong Kong's second largest foreign exchange earner are of a different order, aggravated by the regional currency crisis, a strong HK dollar and increased competition. As other countries in Southeast Asia lure cost-conscious visitors to less expensive locations, and visitor numbers from Japan decline, in part because of their own economic downturn, it begins to look as if the industry is facing a lean period lasting well into next year. Already, Cathay Pacific chairman Peter Sutch has revealed that the company's first-half profits fell 35 per cent, warning that the visitor fall-off may be more than a momentary blip. Tourism employs 12 per cent of the city's workforce and contributes eight per cent to the overall economy. A serious slump would have far-reaching repercussions, so action must be taken quickly to get the industry back on track. Years of economic development have turned Hong Kong into an expensive place to visit. As an international finance centre it is geared to expense account living, rather than being the kind of holiday spot that draws visitors from countries in the region. The superlatives which the tourist trade likes to quote may be less appropriate in the current climate. Instead of boasting that everything in Hong Kong is bigger, richer and glitzier, the buzz words to attract tomorrow's visitors instead may be service, value, quality. Perhaps, as Mr Sutch suggested, Hong Kong has had it too easy for too long and needs to adapt to the realities of a crowded market. A heaven sent publicity opportunity was thrown away when the handover celebrations were so badly bungled. Ineptitude and parochial attitudes cost the SAR international pop concerts and high profile events which would have received television coverage across the world, and bolstered Hong Kong's image as a switched-on city with plenty to offer young fun-seekers as well as middle-aged executives. In April, when Chek Lap Kok opens, new air routes will bring visitors from South America, eastern Europe and elsewhere. It is just the opportunity we need to bolster tourism, but with more hotels being built here, it also means more internal competition. That calls for extra effort all round, to make sure Hong Kong stays a sought-after destination, where people can afford to come.