In recent months, certain areas of Hong Kong have become noticeably less crowded with gaggles of visitors from China towing sizeable suitcases. Anecdotal observations indicate the local tourism industry is experiencing one of its periodic slowdowns. Official visitor arrival statistics – even with allowances for creative, vested-interest interpretations – suggest the same. Inevitably, prolonged wailing has gone up from Hong Kong’s tourist-dependent retail sector about the catastrophic effects of a reduction in Chinese visitor numbers.
Blame for falling tourist numbers has been hurled variously at the 2014 Occupy protests, “anti-locust” demonstrations and the burgeoning nativist movement. All sorts of explanations are offered, but not a dispassionate analysis of the real, underlying causes.
Let’s face it, Hong Kong is a very expensive place to visit for what the experience affords. For the most part, the city offers poor value for accommodation and food if we make regional like-with-like comparisons. And if you’re very obviously from China – a fellow citizen of our “one country”, let’s not forget – Hong Kong’s natives can come across as distinctly cool, to say the least. So why bother coming, when there are plenty of better value, more welcoming destinations to choose from?
These days, visitors – especially from China – “experience” a series of manufactured “attractions”, each more contrived than the last. In this respect, Hong Kong has followed the pedestrian tastes of global mass tourism, with little genuinely unique local flavour to offer.
Once upon a time, however, Hong Kong itself was the primary attraction. Visitors from all over the globe came to see, experience and enjoy this most remarkable, unlikely place perched on China’s south coast. But no longer.
Like much of the modern world, Hong Kong has become blandly homogenised and now China itself is open to visitors. The tangible frisson once obtained from peering across the border at forbidden, forbidding China – so close yet tantalisingly unattainable – is no more.
One attraction has remained constant: shopping. Since the Roaring 20s – the first time Hong Kong figured significantly on round-the-world stopovers – the city’s duty- and sales-tax-free shopping regime has been a major, and heavily promoted, part of its attraction. Without sales taxes, items such as luxury goods retail in Hong Kong for less than the wholesale price in their country of manufacture.
By the mid-1950s, affluence was growing globally, air travel was becoming more popular and China was largely closed off to the outside world. Combined, these factors provided an enormous boon to the fledgling tourist industry.
In 1957, former British Army officer Major Harry Stanley was appointed to run the newly established Hong Kong Tourist Association, overseeing publicity campaigns that put the city on the world tourist map.
In recent decades, sadly, chairmanship of the HKTA (rebranded the Hong Kong Tourism Board in 2001) has become a Liberal Party fiefdom. Successive heads have mostly combined that particular political faction’s curious, patronising, born-to-rule arrogance with the intellectual mediocrity and comprehensive lack of vision habitual to second-generation economic rentiers in their approach to Hong Kong’s contemporary challenges.
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong