As American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan wrote, there is “No direction home” – a dirge that lamented how you can’t recapture the past.
For Hong Kong tourism, the same thing applies. Our
tourism bodies and the private sector can’t find a way to re-invent Hong Kong’s tourism industry. Supporting tech start-ups is Hong Kong’s version of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, but no one has proposed a cohesive strategy to attract a balance of foreign and mainland travellers. Anxious calls for action fail to understand what contemporary Hong Kong culture is really about and its major shortcomings relative to China.
Tourism Board figures provide a clear prognosis. Mainland visitors declined 3 per cent to 45.8 million. 60.7 per cent were day visitors whose likely purpose was a shopping trip to buy infant milk powder, fashion brands, among other goods. They are avoiding China’s taxes, bypassing China’s unreliable food chain security or acquiring goods that aren’t available.
Historically, supplying underground, black and grey markets have been a proven strength of Hong Kong’s import-export trading business culture.
Hong Kong’s bureaucrats need to conform to the infamous pragmatism of the city’s business people. They may be criticised for being short term, uncreative and near sighted, but that’s a behavioural outcome of local economic history.
Ignore the demands for more long term planning and mega-project investment to attract higher spending overseas visitors. Hong Kong needs to accept and surrender to historical determination- that China has overtaken Hong Kong as a Chinese cultural destination.
When China was closed and inaccessible, Hong Kong was its tourism and cultural representative. Through the 1950s to the 1990s, as a free port Hong Kong offered a unique and exotic place for travellers to not only conduct business, but to shop and safely experience authentic Chinese culture.
Today, China has effectively seized Hong Kong’s role. Foreign tourists seek to visit China with Hong Kong as a secondary destination. What’s left in this city is Hong Kong, not Chinese culture. There’s a big difference. There’s no reason for mainlanders to seek Chinese culture in Hong Kong.
Foreigners want to see authentic, ancient Chinese culture. Accept no substitutes. Why conjure up replicas or artificial Chinese culture in Hong Kong when the real thing is available for a short plane ride away up north?
Hong Kong’s Disneyland is a cruel reminder to taxpayers of how billions were wasted on a high profile project with little shelf life beyond 1997. Both China and Disney knew that a competing park would be opened as soon as possible on the mainland. Hong Kong Disney’s business has stagnated. No one wants to be the first operator to close down a Disney park.
So let’s super serve the mainland day shoppers with a mega mall near the border so that shoppers don’t have to overwhelm the city’s infrastructure when they descend into Central. Enable day shoppers to buy luxury goods online and receive them at a border depot.
Hong Kong’s attempts at reviving some semblance of Chinese culture seems artificial and contrived. We are unable to escape beyond the amusement park themes that inflict the Big Buddha in Lantau. It sounds like I am peddling a sliding scale of compromise and disappointment, but managing Hong Kong’s diminishing expectations is a practical exercise in preventing more wasteful spending.