Hong Kong Tourism Industry Under Siege

As late as a few months ago, Hong Kong’s residents were up in arms over the influx of mainland tourists, who were called “locusts” for their tendency to crowd out the locals to denude stores of vast amounts of merchandise, with so-called parallel traders buying up as much as certain goods including milk powder as possible to take back over the border to sell at a markup.

Mainland women were accused of taking maternity ward beds away from local women so that their children could gain right of abode in the city. From 2003, with the agreement with China for the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement that freed up trade and movement by tourists, arrivals from China shot from a handful to more than 31 million in 2014.

Now, however, with the mainland hit by a creeping downturn and the extensive anti-corruption campaign that has kept mainland government officials out of Louis Vuitton and Cartier, the shoe is on the other foot, and the shoe might not be Gucchi. The death of a mainlander last week after a beating in a Kowloon shop has highlighted the predatory practices of tour operators who haul their passengers from landmarks to cut-price and often disreputable shops where they are browbeaten into buying merchandise they don’t need and don’t want. Now merchants are afraid the good days are over.

Japan Looking More Attractive

''A couple of years back in Japan the rate was US$1 to ¥80,” said Wong Ka-fu, an economics and finance professor at Hong Kong University. “Now it is US$1 to ¥120. So now Japanese goods are a lot cheaper, which makes Japan much more attractive for tourists. Japan is becoming attractive for Hong Kong people as well.” At the same time, he said, the yen can play a key role changing the direction of European tourists in Asia to Japan instead of Hong Kong.

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Economics and Finance Prof. Ka-Fu Wong

Although Hong Kong’s tourism industry is far from stagnating – visitor arrivals in August were 4.55 million compared to 4.9 million a year earlier, down 9.2 percent – those losses are apparent to the people involved in the tourism business. They say the high prices of food and housing, including hotel rooms, are the primary reasons for the declining number of visitors along with the mainland slump. They are worried that the high prices can make tourists bypass Hong Kong, which means their businesses will suffer.

The people engaged in the tourism industry are able to provide hands on descriptions of the development of the industry. They say the tourism season in Hong Kong starts from October, when the humidity rate decreases and the weather becomes cooler. Here is a snapshot of the situation on the ground across the territory

Kowloon

In Tsim Sha Tsui, the shopping mecca at the tip of Kowloon across Victoria Harbor from the Central District, ticket sellers are beseeching passersby to take a ride on their tour buses and complaining that there are fewer tourists this year than last.

Bus operators have set up compelling offers including a ticket for a 24 hour tour package at HK$430 (US$55). It includes all-day tours to the places of interest of Hong Kong. Tourists have an opportunity to listen commentaries about each place in up to 10 languages, with adjustable earphones. “The drop of tourists this year is obvious. I’m not saying much, but at least 10 percent certainly,” said Mani Albe. Albe said that even tourists from Mainland China are not as many as before.

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Mani Albe selling tickets

Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak is the top tourism destination in the city. The 552-meter mountain provides a breathtaking view over the city as tourists describe it. Usually, they get there by tram. The peak time to get to the Peak, as locals call it, is the Saturday evening. The lineup for the tram can stretch almost 100 meters.

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Taxi drivers usually approach to the people in the queue and suggest driving them to the Peak for HK$400. By contrast the Peak Tram ticket costs HK$85 for adults, but on a Saturday night the wait can stretch to two hours.

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Taxi driver talks up tourists to drive them to Victoria Peak

The target groups for them, they said, are Europeans who are easily fed up of waiting and give in easily. The others have to wait longer. On that day it took those about 2 hours to get to the tram, which runs every eight minutes

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The tram is believed to be 130 years old. But nobody doubts its solidity and security. Inside, the excited passengers tried to take photos of the changing city views. After 10 minutes, they arrive at the Peak with all of its glory.

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Tourists enjoy Hong Kong view

''Victoria peak is awesome, really a perfect view. Many people around us, the atmosphere, it is very impressive,'' said Christian,25,a German coming from Shanghai with his friend Alex Dick, 22. Young men say they prefer Hong Kong over Shanghai. They like the mix of modern buildings and nature trails. Alex and Christian signify also captivating night life of the city, which seems vibrant 24/7.

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Alex and Christian and Alex, from Germany, at Victoria Peak

''But the prices are too high compared even to Shanghai, which is hard to call a cheap city,” said Alex. “We spend at least HK$300 per day. It is hard to find cheap food. We just go to 7-Eleven to grab a sandwich for breakfast, because otherwise we couldn’t afford our stay. Even just a bottle of water is three to four times as expensive as in Shanghai.''

The two friends will leave Hong Kong for Germany in a week. Alex, who is visiting for the first time, said he would like to come back after becoming a successful manager to afford his stay and enjoy the city.

Tsim Sha Tsui

''Hello, are you a tourist?’’I asked a girl standing at the harbor and looking at the buildings on the other side of the sea in Tsim Sha Tsui. ''Yes?'' She answered surprised and full of expectations.

''I make reports about tourists to …''

''Oh, I am not a tourist. Just my name is Theresa,'' said the girl, laughing and pointing out the area where I could meet tourists. That was close to Star Ferry, the iconic passenger service company founded at the end of the 19th century. The area is surrounded by museums, restaurants, parks and stores. The daily Symphony of Lights laser show launches at 9 pm.

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Sea view; TST promenade

Not far from the TST promenade is the Avenue of Stars, where visitors can see more than 100 Hong Kong film industry celebrities’ stars embedded in the sidewalk. Presumably only a few names, for example Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, will ring a bell for foreigners. Now the area is under reconstruction and the statues have been relocated.

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Avenue of Stars is under reconstruction

Lan Kwai Fong

When it comes to night life, LKF, as it is universally known, is the destination that both locals and foreigners long for. This is a district in the central area of Hong Kong, where more than 100 bars, clubs and restaurants are located. LKF is one of the most international places in the city and is always crowded, especially on Friday nights.

''All the people just drink and have fun. They mainly drink a lot of beer,' said Michael, a guard of a club in LKF, by adding-''Yes, fights also happen, but very rarely.'

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3am. LKF

A Finnish tourist said he was in Hong Kong for six days and that he would be spending most of his time in Central.

''I spend at least 100 dollars per day'', he said, indifferently.

''Hong Kong dollars ?”I asked.''Are you kidding? US, of course '' he said in surprise, with a smile.

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Lan Kwai Fong is not a place for only the wealthy. Most are young – students, professionals who enjoy Hong Kong night life at cheap prices. For instance, they do not buy beverages at the clubs. They say it is expensive. Instead, they take beer from 7-Eleven Stores and chicken barbeque or a slice of pizza from the ‘’Big Pizza’’ shop. The seller of Big Pizza is Ali Goli, 32, who came to Hong Kong from Pakistan three years ago.

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Ali Goli at work

“During these years the number of tourists definitely decreased. Two years ago they were so many. I can say that based on the profitability of our business,” he said. People used to come for longer periods, but now, for most visitors, the maximum stay is a week.

Thus, Hong Kong, the Asian New York as westerners call the city, with a currency that has appreciated along with the US dollar and steep food and hotel bills, faces real challenges from other Asian cities including Bangkok, with equally raucous night life, and growing destinations in China including Shanghai – or just across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen. If that happens, Victoria Peak and Lan Kwai Fong are going to continue to suffer.

Photos and text by Manvel Keshishyan, who is a master’s degree candidate in journalism at Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is an Asia Sentinel intern.