One swallow does not a summer make

You can’t blame Hong Kong Tourism Board for cheering a rise in visitor numbers – but let’s not get too excited

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 6:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 11:00pm

Mainland tourists are returning to Hong Kong, with arrivals showing an uptick last month for the first time in 13 months and officials upbeat that the turnaround will continue for the rest of the year.

- SCMP, August 11

I suppose it’s in character for the HKTB (Hong Kong Tuberculosis ... oops, I mean Tourism Board). They have been on their knees for more than a year, praying for a sign from heaven, any portent at all, that mainland visitor numbers will turn up again.

And when they got one, they leaped to their feet and proclaimed the bad times have ended at last, glory be, and a bright new future is opening for us again. The turnaround will continue for the rest of the year.

Or will it?

The numbers showing a 2.2 per cent growth of mainland arrivals in July over July last year were announced to the world a little on the early side.

Even a week later they have not yet been cleared for publication. In fact the TB’s practice is to release these monthly figures only on the last day of the following month. This would give us almost two weeks still to go.

But when you have good news why bother with all those bothersome checking disciplines?

Just a pointless nuisance, you know. Rise from your knees, my friends, and raise your arms to heaven. Hallelujah!

Let’s accept for the time being that the number is correct. You then get that red notch upwards on the right side of the first chart, below. Visitor arrivals from the mainland numbered 3.9 million last month compared with 3.2 million in June.

That’s what a 2.2 per cent year over year growth rate gives you for July.

The point I wish to make with this chart is that it comprises one long series of such upward notches and comparable downwards ones to follow. It is why I normally smooth out such data with a moving average of at least six months. And when I do so, the trend is still down. One swallow does not a summer make.

Of more importance, however, the amount of money each visitor spends on average is heavily down.

I cannot break out the most recent figures for mainland visitors only but, as they comprise three quarters of the total and are the heaviest spenders, the overall figures should tell the story quite well.

Of more importance, however, the amount of money each visitor spends on average is heavily down

This story is in the second chart and here I have smoothed it out with a four quarter average.

In 2013 the average visitor spent HK$5,600 while here. This figure is now HK$4,600 and still falling.

This supposed pillar industry is a pretty thin pillar. Shopping accounts for by far the largest bulk of tourism spending and all the goods these shoppers buy are imported.

Thus most of the money they bring in goes right back out again to pay for the imports. What remains aside from shop wages goes mostly to shop and hotel landlords.

But these are the people who comprise the HKTB membership. No wonder they have been praying.