Sensible growth in tourist numbers vital to ensure quality of the Hong Kong experience

Yvonne Lo and Paul Yip say now is the time for Hong Kong to rethink its 'high-volume, low-value' approach

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 August, 2015, 4:30pm

The growth in visitor arrivals to Hong Kong dropped from 22 per cent in 2010 to 12 per cent last year. Per capita spending of overnight visitors fell 2 per cent compared with the previous year, while hotel occupancy rates and retail value also declined in the first half of this year.

Clearly, tourism growth is slowing. Should the government lament this decline, or see it as an opportunity to embrace a new kind of sustainable tourism that doesn't sideline locals?

Mainland China is Hong Kong's largest source of visitors, accounting for about 80 per cent of the total. The influx began in 2003, when the individual visit scheme was launched, and the numbers grew by leaps and bounds after entry restrictions were further eased in 2009 and 2010. Yet, the city's ability to handle tourist numbers has not improved to match the growth.

To satisfy mainland tourists' needs, international chain stores, jewellers and pharmacies have taken over our streets. Consequently, Hong Kong has become one massive shopping mall with few local characteristics or unique charm.

The tourism industry has become so comfortable with this narrow portfolio that any changes in China's economy that affect mainland tourists' spending power affect our tourism industry almost immediately.

Hong Kong received 60.8 million visitors last year - more than eight times the city's population. But this "high-volume, low-value" tourism has put considerable strain on the city. Workers have been drawn into the low-skilled retail sector when they could have had much higher productivity elsewhere. Catering to a single source of tourists leaves the city with little capacity to diversify.

Barcelona, one of Europe's most visited cities, with a record 7.4 million tourists last year, is also experiencing rising tensions between locals and tourists. And yet its tourist-to-residents ratio is about half of Hong Kong's. Last summer saw a series of open conflicts and protests by Barcelona's residents against tourists, largely because the city council neglected the very things that drew tourists to the city - people and culture.

Rents at tourist hotspots were pushed up by speculators; souvenirs shops and bars have displaced grocery stores; disrespectful behaviour, noise and pollution have all offended local communities. Uncontrolled mass tourism has made locals' life a misery.

Also, a failure to regulate tourism can prove destructive to landmarks. In Paris, for instance, leaving "love locks" attached to the Pont des Arts has become a tourist ritual in recent years. But as a result of the almost one million padlocks - weighing 45 tonnes - part of the bridge collapsed last year. Britain's world heritage site Stonehenge, Copenhagen's Nyhavn waterfront area and Barcelona's Park Güell are so full each day that most visitors having had a dismal experience.

The tourism model in Hong Kong is unsustainable and short-sighted. Gains from mass tourism come at the cost of visitor experience and quality of life for locals.

Political will for regulation is low due to the economic benefits derived from tourism. The number of international tourists has increased over the years. Last year, they spent an estimated US$1.25 trillion in total. In Hong Kong, tourism contributed 5 per cent of the gross domestic product and supported 269,700 jobs. Governments and politicians tend to favour more tourists as it brings jobs and economic growth.

However, with the recent backlash in these world cities, local governments can no longer turn a blind eye to the emerging social costs. Here are some ways to tackle these problems:

  • Regulatory: Barcelona plans to introduce a cap on the number of tourists entering the city. Copenhagen has introduced a "quiet zone" along the city canal to protect residents from excessive noise from tourists and tours.
  • Charging: Given the massive number of daily visits to the iconic Park Güell, Barcelona city council introduced an admission fee in 2013. This has cut visitor numbers from 30,000 a day to 6,000. Not only has this raised the quality of the experience, the entry fees also
  • brought in millions of euros in revenue for the park.
  • Prioritising: Cities are devising more targeted approaches. Eighty per cent of tourists, for example, cite culture as the main reason for visiting a city. The mayor of London recently launched a cultural tourism strategy to raise cultural awareness.
This is exactly the breathing space we need to rejuvenate ourselves

Simple initiatives can help a city take advantage of tourism growth without exploitation. Copenhagen, another top tourist destination, believes "tourists should blend in with the Danish way of life, not the other way round", according to one report. The city government introduced initiatives, including a ban on foreigners buying holiday cottages on their coasts and limiting the number of bars and restaurants, to prevent mass tourism from taking over.

In the end, it is about changing the mindset of local officials from a "high-volume, low-value" tourism model to a "low-volume, high-value" one. It requires putting constituents' needs and tourists' experience first. We need to reduce our reliance on mainland tourists and devise a more sustainable, targeted approach for tourism.

We should seize the opportunity of the cut in visitor numbers to create a better environment for everyone. This is exactly the breathing space we need to rejuvenate ourselves. Hong Kong is one of the world's most densely populated cities but we have much more to offer than shopping - for example, the geological park in Sai Kung, beautiful walking trails, Cantonese opera and so on, all within an hour's travel.

We should aim to attract tourists who are willing to pay to experience diversity and culturally rich services. The benefits of tourism must be shared by the community at large so Hong Kong people will smile at all our visitors.

Yvonne Lo is a researcher at BOP Consulting and the World Cities Culture Forum in London. Paul Yip is a professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong