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Tourist overload - Is Hong Kong overwhelmed?

Written by
Anna Cummins

The Tourism Commission has just revealed that, by 2023, 100million people will visit our city every year – nearly double the current amount. Will all the pressure be too much for our infrastructure? Anna Cummins dissects this hot debate

If you’ve ever grumbled as you waited for hours at Hong Kong immigration, tutted as you had your elbows knocked by crowds of bag-wielding tourists in Tsim Sha Tsui or rolled your eyes at all those illegally parked coaches lined up alongside our city’s luxury shops, then it might preserve your sanity best if you stop reading now.

In mid-January, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Gregory So Kam-leung, delivered the results of a new Tourism Commission report. It made one thing very clear: Hong Kong should brace itself for a sharp increase in the number of tourists visiting annually. It’s projected that, by 2017, 70million visitors will enter the city every year and, by 2023, that number will be up to 100m. That compares to the relatively humble 54.3m visitors who entered last year.

This huge hike in tourist numbers has, naturally, rattled many Hongkongers – and we’ve been speaking out in our droves since the release of the report. “It’s terrible!” exclaims Roy Tam Ho-pong from the Population Policy Concern Group. “I am very angry about this prediction. The government isn’t doing anything to relieve our discontent! Our shopping malls and our public transportation are nearly at maximum capacity, so you feel that everywhere is very crowded. If 70m tourists enter in 2017, that’s 10 times our population! There should be a cap on the numbers. The government isn’t facing reality.” 

The anger that many Hongkongers are experiencing is driven, in part, by the ‘type’ of visitors who make up the bulk of these figures. Almost three-quarters of all visitors who entered Hong Kong last year were from the Mainland, up by 17 percent compared to 2012. Importantly, 58 percent of visitors from China don’t stay here overnight. They return to the Mainland on the same day. It’s this group of visitors that seems to be seen as the ‘largest problem’. 

“There’s a really important difference between a tourist who stays overnight and a day-trip visitor,” explains Professor Bob McKercher, from the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “Overnight visitors are really not much of a problem. They stay in touristy places and do tourist-type things. They can be managed well. The challenge is the day trippers. They don’t do touristy things. They cross over and do shopping or dining and then head back. Almost all of them come from Guangdong province. They are the ones causing the problems now.”

The popularity of Hong Kong as a day-trip destination for people from South China has soared exponentially since 2003. During the economic downtown that followed the SARS epidemic, our government introduced tourism-boosting policies such as the Individual Visit Scheme, allowing people from Guangdong (and several other provinces) to visit Hong Kong without being part of an organised tour group. Despite the fact that the Tourism Board spends only one percent of its marketing budget in Guangdong, arrivals of day-trippers from China have risen from 4.5m in 2004 to 23.7m last year. Fuelled by a suspicion of products on the Mainland, many of these people are here to shop until they drop. 

While Chief Executive CY Leung and the Central Government have now promised a temporary freeze on the number of cities that can apply to the IVS, Tam feels that it’s already too late. “There are many shops that originally were focused on local people’s needs but now they’ve changed to gold and jewellery shops, pharmacists selling milk powder, cosmetics shops and shops selling digital cameras,” he says emphatically. “That’s why we are very frustrated and angry.” 

McKercher agrees that the government of a decade ago never looked this far ahead. “They never planned for how to cope with these people... Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang were most interested in pouring concrete for tourists, but not planning for tourists. Generally they’ve done a good job of pouring concrete – Ocean Park is great, Disneyland is great – but it’s the day trippers invading shopping centres in Sheung Shui and Fanling who are causing all the animosity now.”

Of course, it’s understandable that many people are startled by these astronomical forecasts. But not everyone feels the same way. Sam Ng is a Hongkonger in her mid-20s. She owns a jewellery stall in the busy Wan Chai market. “I don’t find the tourists annoying, not at all,” she smiles. “I like to talk with all of them! I keep a record of where they’re all from.” Ng admits that the city can get too busy during peak times such as Christmas. But, overall, she’s not fazed by the report. “There’s nothing bad about having more tourists – it’s just more jobs, more income for us!” she laughs. Indeed, the average spend of a Mainland tourist in our city is around $6,000 per day, and the total income from one-day visitors in 2012 was well over $50billion.

Regardless of the economic pros and social cons of receiving more tourists, Hong Kong inevitably needs to brace itself for these projections to become reality. “The government now has to scramble to get caught up to the situation,” concedes McKercher. “Realistically, they just can’t put a cap on Chinese visitors. It’s unpalatable given ‘one country, two systems’.”

There’s still no firm strategy of how our city’s infrastructure will deal with these impending tourist masses. The busiest MTR lines, including the Island Line and the East Rail Line up to the Shenzhen border, already run at around 70 percent capacity during peak times, reveals Kendrew Wong, MTR media relations manager. However, he seems confident that the MTR can cope with an upswing in demand. “Since 2012, MTR has introduced more than 1,300 additional train trips per week,” he says. “To meet passenger demand in future, we are now building five new rail lines and will work with the government on the future development of railways.” 

So, what’s the answer to our tourism woes? CY Leung recently mooted the possibility of a reclaimed ‘East Lantau Metropolis’, featuring hotels and shopping centres. But this seems unlikely to quell the main problems associated with day trippers, and has been criticised as an attempt to justify the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which is currently under construction in the vicinity.

Several experts have advocated building a huge shopping complex near to the border, instead. “That would be a big step to the answer,” argues McKercher. “If you provide facilities for tourists at the border, then there’s no need for them to make that long commute [downtown]. To give CY a little bit of credit, he did mention it in his policy address. But it’s appalling that no-one has raised it before.” Tam, however, is sceptical of the idea. “For me, it’s a question mark. I don’t know if we really can stop tourists from going into the city. Would they follow our suggestion?”

For now, the short answer seems to be that there is no answer. “Chinese tourists are an easy target for all the frustration that Hongkongers feel about the relationship between Hong Kong and China,” rationalises McKercher. “Change is something that creates animosity – but eventually Hongkongers will get used to tourists or they will moderate their own behaviour to avoid the crowds. People will just cope.”.

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