Transport links are key to Hong Kong’s prosperity, says AmCham president

City has a lot to gain from its role connecting investors with the mainland as long as the infrastructure is in place, says outgoing president Richard Vuylsteke

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 3:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 September, 2016, 11:02pm

Hong Kong should establish more physical infrastructure connecting it with Pearl River Delta cities to enhance its role as a link between international investors and southern China, according to the outgoing president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Richard Vuylsteke, who will leave the city in January to take up a new role as president of the academic East-West Center in Hawaii, said with the right transport links in place, Hong Kong was poised to benefit from growth in the Pearl River Delta area and investment in One Belt, One Road economies.

Despite short-term headwinds such as the drop in retail and tourist numbers, he remained “very bullish” on Hong Kong’s long-term prospects.

“The key for Hong Kong to continue to attract international investors to come is to build more roads, railways and subways to link up Hong Kong with Macau, Qianhai, Shenzhen and many of the Pearl River Delta cities,” said Vuylsteke in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

It is vital for [international investors] to find it easy and quick to travel around the Pearl River Delta cities
Richard Vuylsteke, president, AmCham Hong Kong

“International investors would like the idea that they could have breakfast with clients in Hong Kong, then go to Shenzhen for a morning meeting and back to meeting other clients in Macau in the afternoon. It is vital for them to find it easy and quick to travel around the Pearl River Delta cities which are the fast growing areas.

“International investors came to Hong Kong because its location is very convenient for them to travel to mainland China and other part of Asia. Super connector is the role Hong Kong would need to play.”

He said the stock connect scheme that has linked the stock markets of Hong Kong and Shanghai since 2014 has boosted cross-border trading, and the forthcoming Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect - which could be launched as soon as November - would continue to attract international investors to Hong Kong who wish to trade shares on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges.

Vuylsteke said Hong Kong will benefit from China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to establish road, railway and other infrastructure projects linking and improving trade between China and more than 60 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe.

The ambitious plan will need to attract international firms to invest, and Hong Kong is perfectly placed to benefit as a fundraising centre.

Vuylsteke was born in the American Midwest and moved to India to study in 1966. He has worked as an academic and journalist in Asia-Pacific for many years, and was a member of the chambers of commerce of India, Hawaii and Taipei before he took his current post eight years ago.

“When I first came here in 2008, it was the financial crisis. The chamber had to arrange many talks, forums and seminars about the Chinese economic outlook and opportunities here. Then Hong Kong bounced back from the crisis very quickly.”

He leaves as Hong Kong’s economy faces one of its bleakest periods in two decades, with retail figures at their worst in 19 years due to a drop in tourist numbers and the mainland’s economic downturn. However, Vuylsteke said he is confident the city will recover quickly as Hong Kong people are good at handling crises.

“Hong Kong people don’t just sit there, they do something to improve things. They are more flexible during a downturn. [For example], employees might agree to work part time or take no paid leave. This is why Hong Kong always recovers faster than many other places after a financial crisis,” he said.

“We have seven million people and 60 million tourists coming every year. There are still a lot of opportunities for retailers but we just need to readjust the way we serve the visitors. Visitors will eventually come back.”

Super connector is the role Hong Kong would need to play
Richard Vuylsteke, president, AmCham Hong Kong

He accepted the job in Hawaii as he believes it will be good for AmCham Hong Kong to have fresh blood. He is also looking forward to a change of scenery after working in Hong Kong for nine years.

Vuylsteke is no stranger to Hawaii, having earned MA and PhD degrees from the University of Hawaii with support grants from the East-West Center. He also served in research and administrative capacities at the center, and taught for many years at the University of Hawaii and at Chaminade University in Honolulu.

“After I get to Hawaii, the first thing I’ll do is lobby to have a direct flight between Hong Kong and Hawaii,” he said, adding that Hawaii’s good food and beaches would attract many Hong Kong and mainland tourists.

“I still love the pace and people in Hong Kong - it is never boring. The only thing I felt disappointed by is that the Hong Kong government has not made good use of the Victoria Harbour, which is beautiful day and night.

“The government should make the harbour an attraction like Sydney, Singapore and Taiwan, where people could go and relax along the waterfront. It is not just a huge resource for tourists but also for the locals.”

The number of annual visitors to Hong Kong was corrected to 60 million from 16 million.