YOU KNOW WHO your friends are when times get tough and Hong Kong has seen some real testing of its friends at the height of the Sars crisis last month. The chart shows you a 20-year record of the monthly number of visitor arrivals other than those coming from the mainland. That figure for last month of 171,000 is the lowest on record and you would probably have to go back to the early 1970s or even the 1960s to find one lower. This is the gloomy view, of course. Include the mainland and we had 493,000 visitors last month. In that case you have to go back only to February 1991, the month after the previous bout of American military adventurism in Iraq, to see a lower figure. Friends indeed. There were still 322,000 visitor arrivals from the mainland last month, down from previous months without a doubt, but those who came constituted a whopping 65.3 per cent of total arrivals. Just look at the table for the contrast with Japan. In 1996 Japanese arrivals constituted 21.1 per cent of the total while the figure for the mainland was only 18.5 per cent. Last month, however, we had more than 20 times as many visitors from the mainland as came from Japan. Notice from the table how every other country, bar India, shows that same trend of a declining percentage of the total in visitor arrivals. Do not ask me why the figure for visitors from India is up. Business is good, I assume, just another piece of evidence that growth in our domestic economy may be slow but the external economy is still booming. Note also that while the rapidly strengthening euro may lead more Europeans to look for cheap holidays here, when they are finally happy that Sars no longer poses a danger to them, it would have to be a very big pick-up indeed to make any real difference to total visitor growth. Europe is now a small tourist market for us. It is probably a comment you could make in general about our traditional tourist markets and this really needs to be borne in mind when you hear people talk about how the visitor numbers are likely to continue going down for a few months because our economy is still slow and the Sars scare will outlast the actual Sars outbreak. So what? It is the mainland that counts now. If you worry what this month's figures will show, remember that last month's figures showed almost twice as many people coming from the mainland as from the rest of the world. What is important here, particularly in the short term, is what drives mainland visitors to come. Straightforward tourism is obviously a large part of it, perhaps even larger than it is for visitors overall, and you would expect Sars to have a bigger sentiment impact on tourists than on business visitors. But then again the mainland is itself hardly Sars free. Sars may deter tourists from the mainland less than it deters tourists from elsewhere. The number of business visitors from the mainland is heavily determined by the mainland's foreign trade performance and the trade services that Hong Kong performs for them. With mainland export growth still rising by 30 per cent year over year, this segment of the arrivals is likely to prove resilient. We will obviously need more than arrivals from the mainland to bring total arrivals back pre-Sars levels but this is a medium term objective. The more short-term concern is what this month's and next month's figures show and forecasts for these really must concentrate on mainland visitors to the exclusion of almost all others. I GOT AN unsolicited message on my mobile phone from the Hong Kong Tourism Board yesterday. It read: 'The WHO travel advisory for Hong Kong has been lifted. Please send this good news to your friends overseas!' I have an equally urgent return message to send the HKTB (the tuberculosis) - Stop press! Julius Caesar has just been assassinated in Rome! Get real, guys.