Wish you were here: Hong Kong must keep evolving to attract more tourists
Gregory So says the dip in tourist numbers is spurring efforts to promote Hong Kong more creatively
Has Hong Kong lost its lustre as a tourist attraction, and has the Hong Kong government done enough to develop tourism infrastructure in the city? These are questions being asked around town as Hong Kong experiences its first downturn in visitor arrivals since 2009, and a continued weakening of visitor spending.
We have also heard that perhaps we should look beyond shopping and dining when promoting Hong Kong, to highlight the city's other aspects, such as arts, culture or even its hiking trails, to attract a more diverse visitor mix.
These are all valid concerns, and ones that I and my colleagues in the Tourism Commission and Tourism Board are looking at closely. Our goal is to ensure that Asia's world city remains a must-see destination for people from all corners of the globe. Here, we not only have a challenge but a great opportunity to look at what we can and should do to facilitate holistic and sustainable tourism growth.
There is no doubt that Hong Kong has much to offer. For decade upon decade, visitors have been beguiled by our eclectic mix of East and West, old and new, tradition and innovation. These are part of our tourism DNA and, I believe, will continue to be an attraction in the years ahead.
A number of aspects need to be considered, including connectivity, ease of access, receiving capacity, attractions, value for money and packaging. Changes in exchange rates, for example, may make people think twice about whether a destination is good value, or indeed even affordable.
As a global business, financial and trading centre, Hong Kong is fortunate to be well connected by air, with about half the world's population within a five-hour flight. Our airport ranks consistently among the best in the world for visitor experience. We are pressing ahead with plans for a third runway to ensure our capacity can meet expected demand. Not only that, once you are in Hong Kong, our public transport system is one of the best in the world in terms of affordability and network.
On ease of access, we have a liberal immigration regime which provides visa-free access for people from about 170 countries. In recent years, we have tweaked our immigration rules to make it even easier for people to study, work and live in Hong Kong.
In terms of capacity, Hong Kong has around 74,000 hotel rooms of varying price points. We have added more than 32,000 rooms over the past decade, and expect another 10,000 to come on stream by 2017. The government works closely with the tourism industry to ensure the timely provision of enough land for hotel and tourism-related development.
In terms of attractions, there are experiences galore within easy reach.
The central business district is a good example. Apart from the huge range of Asian and Western cuisine on offer, not to mention shops and markets, visitors can explore its back lanes or admire the architecture and contrasts of heritage and contemporary buildings nestled side by side.
Not far from the bustling commercial district - as close as a five-minute cab ride - visitors can enjoy the serene silence of a country trail, or take in the views of the harbour from the back of a ferry to an outlying island. Few cities in the world have dense urban and commercial districts within such easy reach of harbour and hillsides.
While our iconic cityscape is an attraction in itself, we are acutely aware of the need to develop new attractions. Over the past 10 years, we have seen the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland (2005), the Ngong Ping 360 cable car (2006), the Wetland Park (2006), the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal (2013) and the Observation Wheel (2014). New attractions have also been added to Disneyland and Ocean Park.
Around town, PMQ - a revitalised historic building cluster - has become a cultural attraction that is also helping to develop and promote our creative talent. The new Central waterfront has become popular with visitors and is also being put to good use for large-scale events such as the annual Wine and Dine Festival, which gets better each year.
Looking ahead, the West Kowloon Cultural District and the revitalised former Central police station will open to the public next year. These two destinations will provide a welcome boost.
Besides, Ocean Park is developing an all-weather indoor-outdoor waterpark, which will feature an impressive cascade of pools that blend in with the natural environment. Hong Kong Disneyland is celebrating its 10th anniversary in style while it gears up for the opening of the new Marvel's Iron Man attraction next year, and a new hotel in 2017.
More attractions and entertainment venues are also being planned at the former Kai Tak airport site and on Lantau Island, both of which have excellent potential to become tourism and resort nodes.
Apart from upgrading and developing attractions and venues, Hong Kong's events calendar is also packed with exciting offerings throughout the year. These include the innovative Hong Kong Pulse 3D light show launched last year, and the inaugural Hong Kong Cyclothon this month. Favourites such as the Hong Kong Tennis Open, Hong Kong Open Golf Championship, the Rugby Sevens, the Wine and Dine Festival and the Hong Kong Arts Festival continue to attract visitors from around the globe.
In addition, Hong Kong remains one of the most popular destinations for Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions, exhibitions) travel. With the concerted efforts of the government, the Tourism Board and the Mice trade, the number of overnight Mice visitors increased from 1.2 million in 2009 to 1.8 million in 2014.
On the infrastructure side, the Trade Development Council is, at the government's invitation, proceeding with the planning of a new convention centre at Wan Chai North to support the long-term development of the convention sector.
The government provides annual funding of over HK$300 million to the Tourism Board to support its external promotion efforts, and is prepared to scale up our support when needed.
Earlier this year, an additional HK$80 million was given to the board to step up its promotion efforts in light of cooling tourism performance. As a further gesture of support, we are giving it an extra HK$10 million to set up a one-off matching fund aimed at attracting high value-added, overnight visitors to Hong Kong.
Local tourist attractions may take advantage of this new funding to boost publicity in Hong Kong's source markets and/or to develop discounted tourism products in partnership with hotels and travel agents.
I am very pleased to note that this initiative has been enthusiastically supported by the tourism sector, which shares the view that we must work together for sustainable tourism development in Hong Kong.
Tourism is one of the pillar industries in Hong Kong. We will continue to improve our tourism attractiveness and foster a welcoming atmosphere for our guests, so that they may experience first-hand the charms of this dynamic, world city.
Gregory So Kam-leung is the secretary for commerce and economic development