HONG KONG - Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s poorest district, where the destitute reside in “coffin homes” in tenement buildings alongside lively street markets, is understandably not a popular destination for mainland tourists.
This could change, according to Hong Kong Tourism Board chairman Peter Lam. He muses: “Sham Shui Po has many small food stands. But tourists don’t go (there).”
Helping the stalls band together as an “attraction” and wooing tourists to the neighbourhood is part of the board’s “diversifying” strategy, which he believes to be the key to resolving Hong Kong’s tourism conundrum: Too many visitors clogging up a few popular spots, straining the infrastructure and resulting in social tensions.
“We need to build different attractions, spread them out,” he says in an interview with The Straits Times.
And these could be as far as beyond the city’s borders. His board is working with the government on ways to leverage neighbouring regions such as Macau and Guangdong province’s Hengqin to take the pressure off Hong Kong. In reference to the new theme park Chimelong in Hengqin, he says: “We can’t build a theme park immediately, but we can make use of our neighbour’s.”
What Dr Lam does not believe in is any suggestion that Hong Kong should limit the number of tourists visiting. “If I do manufacturing and people come and place orders, will I say I have enough, go away? No, I will look for another factory to build. I can’t tell my customers to go away.”
But telling tourists to leave is what some Hong Kongers want. The city of seven million is embroiled in a debate on how much is enough when it comes to reaping the benefits – while grappling with the costs – of tourism.
Last year, the number of tourists jumped 12 per cent to 54 million, 75 per cent of whom were mainlanders. The overall figure is expected to reach 59 million this year, 70 million by 2017 and 100 million by 2023.
The tourists, while helping to create jobs, have also become scapegoats in issues like congested trains, rising prices of necessities, and shops and eateries being turfed out for chain stores popular with mainlanders.
This reached an ugly boiling point two weekends ago when a protest against mainland tourists – whom protesters derogatively called “locusts” – took place at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Canton Road, which is populated with luxury stores. Brandishing banners with phrases like “locusts steal our milk powder while Hong Kong babies eat flour”, about 100 people shouted at mainland tourists to “go home”.
Tourists stayed inside shops, some of which closed for safety. In the wake of the episode, there is discussion of whether hate-crime laws – protecting people of other races – should be expanded to cover mainlanders.
Meanwhile, there are calls for the government to curb the influx. The radical People Power Party proposed an arrival tax of HK$100 (S$16.40) on tourists who travel to Hong Kong by land.
Dr Lam acknowledges that the fracas was partly a reflection of the stress that the city is under from tourists. “We do have a lot of problems during peak times, but the solution is in building more locations, attractions and hotels,” he adds, saying that Hong Kong’s 18 districts have many locations that remain unexplored.
The question, though, is whether this will work. One marked aspect of Hong Kong’s tourism market is the overwhelming preponderance of mainlanders. Many sightsee, but most go to Hong Kong with a singular purpose: to shop. This is due to low taxes here and the strengthening yuan against the Hong Kong dollar. Food safety is another factor.
Ms Miao Xiaoxuan, 34, a Beijing bank executive who spent HK$40,000 in three days, put it thus: “Hong Kong is a shopping paradise with cheaper and better-quality goods.”
The expectation that this trend will continue has led to calls for a more fundamental rethink of the role of the tourism industry in Hong Kong’s economy. While it accounted for 4.5 per cent of gross domestic product in 2011, hiring about 233,500, or 6.5 per cent, of the workforce, some believe it is driving out small businesses and narrowing job opportunities, while benefiting mainly landlords and big retailers.
Professor Haiyan Song of Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s hotel and tourism management school disagrees, saying local businesses benefit when employees spend their income.
For now, tourists here are shrugging off the “locust” incident.
Ms Chen Jing, 32, a pharmacist from Zhejiang, said she was initially worried about being treated impolitely, which may scare her five-year-old daughter. “I told my daughter to behave herself, such as being quiet in public and throwing litter into the bins. I believe as long as we have good manners, people have no reason to be unfriendly. And as far as I can tell, people here are quite nice.”
But asked if she will consider venturing to Sham Shui Po, her response was telling. “Where is that?”
Additional reporting by Pearl Liu
Ways to solve problems
Problem: Congested tourism spots, especially in shopping areas.
Solution: Diversify attractions. Develop new tourism areas to attract high-end tourists, such as in medical tourism, suggests Professor Song Haiyan of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Eco-tourism is another route.
Problem: Overcrowded public transport.
Solution: The MTR is undergoing five extension projects, with the West Island Line to open this year. Meanwhile, a high-speed rail link from Guangzhou to West Kowloon will take a load off the normal line from Shenzhen, argues Prof Song.
Problem: Too few hotel rooms.
Solution: Ramp up building of hotels while cutting down on budget hostels to reduce mass tourists here, says Prof Song.
Problem: Local shops and eateries being driven out by high rents.
Solution: Help market local districts and domestic businesses to tourists, says Dr Peter Lam of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.