Hongkongers are being encouraged to give visitors a smile as a small but significant step towards improving service quality in the city's tourist sector, where unfriendly welcomes in taxis, shops and restaurants are not uncommon, the Tourism Board's new chairman says.
Pang Yiu-kai, who took over at the helm of the city's tourism promoter last month, said on Tuesday that unfriendly taxi drivers, wait staff and retailers, as well as poor Wi-fi and telecoms services, were the top complaints by tourists last year, when a record 65.1 million travellers visited the city.
While Pang believed that those providing shoddy service were in the minority, he called for a campaign for customer service staff to smile at visitors as the city faced fierce competition for tourist dollars in the wider region.
"A smile is free, why not give it away?" Pang said. "The more you smile, the greater the chance tourists will give tips and so, more income."
Their gripes notwithstanding, tourists most liked Hong Kong's convenient public transport system, efficient immigration procedures and sightseeing options. While the city's accommodation services ranked highly, many found them to be too expensive.
With the US-China trade war having escalated recently, Hong Kong needed to raise its service quality further, Pang said.
"If we don't do better in services, we will lag behind other destinations," he said.
He added that the trade war, which had dragged on for nearly a year, would have a domino effect on other economies and industries, especially business travel.
And the US is Hong Kong's fourth biggest source of travellers. The largest source by far was mainland China, which accounted for four in five visitors in the first three months of this year.
The board's outgoing executive director Anthony Lau Chun-hon said the number of business travellers slumped in 2001 when American energy firm Enron collapsed and the figures had since yet to return to that level.
Improving service quality was among the board's top priorities, which also included diversifying the sources of visitors and boosting tourists' average spending, he said.
To improve access to information for international travellers, who numbered 14 million last year, the board was revamping its website and mobile app in partnership with Google.
Lau said the new platform would be available at the end of this year, and would allow tourists to get information on more than 10,000 shops and restaurants certified by the quality tourism service scheme.
"This means that if any visitors make complaints against these outlets, the board will follow up accordingly," Lau said.
Travellers will also have access to tourism information through Google's Map, Posts, Events and Trips tools.
For example, when tourists searched Hong Kong as keywords on the Google search engine, the city's latest events would automatically show up, Lau said.
This was Google's first partnership with a national tourism organisation in Asia, he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.