Promote Hong Kong to real tourists, not mere shoppers

Peter Kammerer says if the Tourism Board wants to draw higher-quality, higher-spending visitors to the city, it needs to better target its campaign

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2016, 2:01pm

Long have I known that the people who emerge from the MTR dragging suitcases are not tourists. I have been pushed and shoved by them as they barrel across streets. Later, I will encounter them outside shops, piling their booty of clothes, food and pharmaceuticals into their luggage. Then, satisfied, they will trundle back to whence they came, more often than not, Shenzhen or somewhere in Guangdong.

The decline in tourist numbers is due to Hong Kong not being as attractive a place as it once was for shoppers, specifically those from the mainland

The definition of a tourist is someone who travels to a place for pleasure. People who cross a border, get on public transport and then go shopping are therefore not tourists; they are shoppers. If only the Hong Kong Tourism Board saw matters the way I do, our approach to attracting visitors would be so much simpler. As it is, the numbers of both are rolled together and, when one or the other fluctuates negatively, there is panic.

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah was certainly reflecting the hand-wringing sentiment when he allocated more funding for tourism promotion in the latest budget. Visitor numbers for 2015 were down 2.5 per cent, to 59.3 million, on the previous year. But if the definition of what is a tourist is factored in, I doubt that there is a need for a single extra cent. The decline is due to Hong Kong not being as attractive a place as it once was for shoppers, specifically those from the mainland.

READ MORE: Hong Kong should extend a warmer welcome to mainland visitors – or suffer a permanent decline in its tourism industry

READ MORE: Been there, done that. So how can Hong Kong lure back tourists?

Here are the raw numbers from the Tourism Board’s website. Mainland visitors declined 3 per cent to 45.8 million; those on short-haul flights fell about 100,000 to 8.3 million and long-haul arrivals went up 0.4 per cent to 4.3 million. The statistics do not show how long mainlanders stayed, but an idea can be gleaned from this figure: 60.7 per cent were same-day visitors, the majority presumably here for the shopping. The decline in numbers is probably largely due to the tightening last year of multiple-entry permits for Shenzhen residents, although the drop in mainland economic growth and, more recently, the weakening of the renminbi and strengthening of the Hong Kong dollar are also factors.

Tourism officials would seem to have realised the shift, lowering the amount for promoting shopping from HK$30 million to HK$20 million. More resources will be allocated to highlighting our food and history. But better quality Cantonese food can be had in the Chinese districts of places like Toronto and Melbourne and we’ve done an excellent job of obliterating our past through redevelopment. People who are not shoppers come here for the simple reason of Hong Kong being a place of East meets West and a city of contrasts – oh yes, and there are those spectacular views from The Peak and across Victoria Harbour from the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront that are unparalleled anywhere in the world.

There are some simple basics about tourism to Hong Kong that travellers – genuine ones – have long known. They are the sights, sounds and smells of a destination and our city has them in abundance like no other. Journalist Martha Gellhorn, the wife of author Ernest Hemingway, summed them up nicely during a visit in 1941 when she wrote, from a New York perspective: “To newcomers, Hong Kong seems like a combination of Times Square on New Year’s eve, the subway at 5.30 in the afternoon, a three-alarm fire, a public auction and a country fair.” For those with a love of exploration, that can be contrasted with our outlying islands and country parks.

Those are our tourism strengths and that’s all we need to promote. We don’t need more tourists, just better-defined ones. By focusing on what we’ve got that no other city has, we will get higher-quality travellers who will spend appropriately.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post