Tourism promotion should be aimed at visitors who like Hong Kong just the way it is

  • Bernard Chan says Hong Kong must choose between new attractions that inconvenience residents or tailoring tourism around the city’s authentic character
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2018, 12:29pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2018, 8:00pm

A few decades ago, international leisure travel was a luxury. Up to the 1980s, for example, “tourists” in Hong Kong meant mostly well-off Westerners – before the Japanese started to come.

Since then, global incomes have increased, flights have become cheaper, and flat-sharing services like Airbnb have expanded accommodation options. I recently read that young Vietnamese students are starting to put on backpacks and explore the world.

We should welcome this democratisation of travel. At a social level, it is great for people from different backgrounds to learn about each other’s cultures and lifestyles. And tourism is clearly an important source of job creation.

But there are environmental costs. Many communities are experiencing a very visible problem simply as a result of the numbers of tourists in particular places. Certain cities in Europe are now in danger, as a recent article put it, of turning from living communities to amusement parks.

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In much of Venice, it has got to the point where attempts to control tour groups and cruise ships meet huge opposition from some residents because these are where the business and jobs are.

For years, Barcelona invested in attracting tourism. For a while, the city became a fashionable destination. Then, in recent years, the numbers of visitors exploded. This has led to a serious backlash from residents who are finding that their traditional shops are giving way to tourist outlets and their quality of life is suffering.

The mayor has banned new hotels and is trying to restrict the arrival of cruise ships and tour groups’ access to key sites. The officials are trying to prevent a situation where locals move out and the core of the city becomes like parts of Venice – a theme park full of fast-food and T-shirt shops.

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Other European cities, including Amsterdam, Florence and Paris, are facing these sorts of challenges. The Caribbean and even parts of Latin America are starting to suffer the impact of too many tourists.

This goes for quite a few parts of Asia, too. Authorities closed a famous beach in Thailand and the Philippines resort of Boracay to let them recover from influxes of holidaymakers.

Here in Hong Kong, tourism has become a sensitive issue. Several decades ago, growing numbers of (mostly young and female) Japanese started shopping for high-end fashion items here. Today, mainlanders have taken their place, and in much larger numbers.

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The impact on some of our neighbourhoods has been quite serious. New Territories communities have experienced cross-border shopping for basic commodities, while visitors from further away come to downtown districts for luxury goods.

Some vendors are clearly making a lot of money from this. But many inhabitants are complaining about higher rents, the closure of local retail outlets and overcrowding on the streets and public transport.

Can we go on boosting visitor arrivals year after year, or should we try to focus more on high-end or niche travellers rather than the mass market? Our tourism promotion officials try to help by spreading tourists out into different neighbourhoods, but ultimately this is not a sustainable model.

Perhaps this problem will solve itself. The Japanese got tired of buying luxury handbags and started exploring new destinations. There are already signs that mainland tourists are looking for new experiences.

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And there must come a point where a place becomes so crammed full of tourists that it is unpleasant and pointless to visit. Although parts of Hong Kong may feel like that, it is far worse in historic places like Venice or Barcelona, and in some beach and other scenic locations made famous in films and TV series.

If we want a tourism industry that is manageable and not annoying, I believe we should essentially target visitors who want the same things that local residents value. Rather than try to attract more luxury shoppers, we should target travellers who appreciate our city’s authentic character. Rather than create spots specifically for tourists, we should improve everyone’s quality of life and environment.

Our new showcase conservation and cultural projects are examples of attractions designed as much for locals as for visitors.

In some European cities, the tourism industry conflicts with the well-being of local people and is turning cities into sterile tourist zones. We should learn from that and encourage a type of tourism that fits in with – and has an interest in maintaining – local quality of life.

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council