Hong Kong’s mega bridge and high-speed rail should do more than bring in visitors the city cannot cope with
- Paul Yip says Hong Kong needs strategic planning to benefit from its two new infrastructure projects – and a tourist free-for-all will not do the trick
The opening of the mega bridge connecting Hong Kong to Zhuhai and Macau and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link to many major cities in China marks the turning of a new page for Hong Kong. When accessibility improves, it stimulates growth and offers more opportunities.
The mega bridge spans the Lingding and Jiuzhou channels and connects Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai, three major cities in the Pearl River Delta. The delta itself is now a megalopolis which has more than 108 million residents according to the 2015 census and which the World Bank has declared the largest urban area in the world in both size and population.
How can Hong Kong leverage this new infrastructure to improve our opportunities and competitiveness? And, in doing so, can we ensure an improvement to the quality of life of Hong Kong residents?
As some cities in the delta are just an hour away from Hong Kong, we now have more choices of where to live and work. However, the probability of Hongkongers moving to the mainland is still quite low at this stage. Health services and the social environment are among the common concerns Hongkongers have about life across the border.
At the same time, these infrastructure projects also bring Hong Kong closer to the millions living in the Pearl River Delta. That the express rail can bring much of the 1.4 billion mainland population to Hong Kong in only hours could become a huge challenge. These new two infrastructure projects are already bringing more than 160,000 people a day to Hong Kong on holidays and at weekends. It has stretched our capacity to the breaking point, especially at arrival and exit points such as Tung Chung and West Kowloon.
The ease of transport has certainly improved the flow of the people in and out of Hong Kong, and this is important for economic and social development in the region. However, the high volume of low value-added activities will not benefit the local economy much. The increased footfall might boost sales in nearby shopping centres but this will only result in rent hikes, with local residents bearing the cost.
Hong Kong is already very congested; we suffer from space deprivation both in private and public areas. A small fraction of the 100 million people in the Pearl River Delta visiting Hong Kong, whether they go to country parks or shopping malls, can easily become too much to bear, especially since our capacity to host them has not been improved at the same rate. Somehow, we need to regulate the number to ensure it does not exceed capacity.
We welcome visitors but we also need to implement effective measures to ensure we can provide good-quality services. Unlicensed tour guides are ripping off customers by failing to provide a proper service. Local residents have borne the social cost and some visitors have had unpleasant experiences, with local activists causing them unnecessary distress.
These tour group operators are simply interested in profit, and don’t care about the well-being of local residents. The experiences of other countries that have sought to contain the growth of visitors have been painful in some cases, but Hong Kong might be able to learn from them. We cannot and should not simply emphasise the volume of visitor traffic.
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Hong Kong needs to understand its role and develop a vision of its development to capitalise on these new infrastructure projects. Strategic planning of the flows of people and money to the Greater Bay Area that leverages Hong Kong’s professional and high-value services will benefit the whole community by diversifying our economy through better connectivity with the mainland. The government and society need to do some serious soul-searching about how Hong Kong should position itself and take full advantage of the latest developments.
Instead, it seems that everyone is busy looking for enough buses to transport people. At the moment, both local residents and visitors are victims of a lack of preparation. Hong Kong does not need a high volume of tourist traffic that adds low value to the city. Once again, the emphasis should be on quality rather than quantity.
Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong