Hong Kong should extend a warmer welcome to mainland visitors – or suffer a permanent decline in its tourism industry
Ken Chu says the city needs to learn why, today, more mainland Chinese prefer other destinations – and make the necessary improvements to its infrastructure, and attitude
In recent months, discussions with friends and business partners, news reports and online postings all appear to suggest a growing trend of mainland Chinese visiting Thailand, South Korea and Japan over Hong Kong and Europe, especially during the Lunar New Year holidays. Some analysts observe that mainland visitors were driven away from Hong Kong by growing hostility towards them and social unrest such as Occupy Central and the riot in Mong Kok.
The number of mainland tourists going to Thailand has skyrocketed in the past five years, from 1.72 million in 2011 to 7.93 million in 2015, a whopping 360 per cent rise. The number visiting South Korea has also risen significantly, from 2.83 million in 2011 to 6.11 million last year. Japan saw the largest increase over the same period, from 1.04 million to 4.99 million, a surge of 380 per cent.
The reasons for their popularity are abundantly clear. Seoul and Tokyo enjoy geographical advantages while Thailand is famed for the hospitality of its people and silky white sandy beaches. According to Chinese tour agencies, Thailand was the No 1 destination for mainlanders in 2015, followed by South Korea and Tokyo.
Realising tourism makes an important contribution to the economy, Thailand places a strong emphasis on tourism infrastructure and has launched campaigns to showcase how friendly Thais are towards foreign travellers. Since late 2015, the Thai government has granted 60-day visas on arrival to mainland tourists to make its country an even more attractive destination.
For mainland tourists, Japan is considered a shoppers’ paradise. Seeing the huge benefits of a surge in mainland visitors fuelled by a weak yen, the Japanese government has set up duty-free shopping centres in metropolitan Tokyo.
As for South Korea, K-pop and Korean TV soap operas have definitely driven mainland Chinese to flock to Seoul to indulge in Korean food and chase their K-pop idols. To further promote Chinese visits, the Korean government has begun relaxing visa rules.
Tourism is one of Hong Kong’s economic pillars. According to the Census and Statistics Department, it contributes about 5 per cent of GDP and accounts for roughly 7 per cent of Hong Kong’s total employment. If related peripheral industries such as catering, restaurants, insurance and transport are included, the sector creates even more jobs, especially for lesser-skilled workers.
Hong Kong’s tourism will not lose its lustre under the leadership of the Tourism Board. The traditional Lunar New Year float parade has become a signature event. We should also be proud that our annual New Year countdown fireworks display is always featured in international news.
We have so many must-visit destinations, landmarks and fascinating events in this city. Here, the modern blends with Chinese traditions and upscale shopping malls coexist with boisterous street markets selling bargains to cater to different tourist budgets and tastes.
We have the first Disneyland in China; Ocean Park, which provides entertainment and fun for families; the Peak, which offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the world-renowned Victoria Harbour.
If fatigued after a marathon shopping trip, tourists can visit the New Territories to experience rural life and learn about Chinese traditions. If the crowded streets prove overwhelming, they can travel a short distance to our country parks to marvel at the lush green hills and serene beaches.
Hong Kong has so much to offer sightseers. Yet tourist numbers declined last year by 2.5 per cent. The drop was especially pronounced among mainland tourists – down by more than 3 per cent – our single biggest source of visitors since the introduction of the individual visitor scheme in 2003. At the same time, Hong Kong Disneyland reported a loss due to the decrease in the number of mainland visitors.
Hong Kong cannot afford to be complacent, especially towards mainland tourists whom many countries are trying so hard to attract with open arms.
These reports of falling mainland visitor numbers should not be treated as a one-off aberration. Some industry people have expressed concern that the dip will transform into a permanent downward trend if a segment of Hong Kong people do not change their hostile attitude and discourteous behaviour towards mainland visitors.
To boost our tourism, Hong Kong should improve its infrastructure and develop more first-class areas to integrate shopping, dining, entertainment, leisure and arts and culture, to provide a convenient and exciting experience to tourists who are increasingly more sophisticated. The introduction of new visitor destinations and activities, including by utilising our ecological resources and scenic natural coastal areas in South Lantau to develop recreational and water sports activities for green tourism, will cater to adventurous tourists.
We should also encourage Hong Kong’s financial market and retailers to accept the mobile payment apps that are popular in mainland China, such as Alipay, WeChat payment, QQ wallet and Baidu wallet, to add convenience for mainlanders visiting Hong Kong.
The “heartware” is equally important. After all, tourism is a service industry. Hong Kong people, whether in the hospitality industry or not, should showcase the basic ingredients of “heartware” – being polite, enthusiastic and helpful to visitors, no matter where they are from.
Despite a difficult road ahead, I have faith in Hong Kong. Saying ni hao with a friendly smile to mainland tourists is the first step to rebuilding this “heartware”.
Dr Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group and a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference