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OPINION

No need to reinvent the wheel in
Hong Kong tourist chase

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaForget 'World City'. This is the 'Greatest Show on Earth'. Hong Kong has unique charms the HKTB, Cathay Pacific, and the MTR can exploit in concert to entice visitors and revitalise local communities. It just needs imagination.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Hong Kong MTR clattering through the green northern countryside

Hong Kong's fast and efficient MTR offers easy access to the metro heartland as well as on to fast-developing areas in the New Territories that offer visitors a range of exciting options / photo: MTR Corporation


WITH the Hello Hong Kong campaign failing to lift off and tourism numbers sagging the search is on for answers. Covid finger-pointing has been a leitmotif of this exercise but it does not explain why cities like  Bangkok, Tokyo, and Macau — all emerging from their own lockdown woes — are packed with visitors.

Copycatting this or that destination is simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It is the common bureaucratic response when ideas are scarce. Every place has its own unique character and this is what excites visitors. No one visits Japan expecting Sumo wrestlers to perform Swan Lake, entertaining as that may be. Hong Kong still retains key attributes that drove inbound numbers to 65 million in 2018, so why the plunging graph?

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Certainly, political shocks in the intervening years have animated many and depressed others but, at the end of the day, visitors to the territory have always enjoyed its unique mix of Western cosmopolitanism and brawling Cantonese tradition, with unrivalled street spectacle. Canned celebrity ads simply do not get this message across.

It is not a matter of budgets but imagination. In 2015, the tiny Faroe Islands' engaging 'sheep view' solar powered cameras boosted tourism by an estimated 30 percent. In 2009, Queensland grabbed world attention with its 'Best Job In The World' campaign — "on a classifieds budget" — to recruit a travel blogger to spotlight the Great Barrier Reef. Switzerland had Robert de Niro complaining to Roger Federer that his country was "too perfect" for a film location. The wry banter ended with the line: "When you need a vacation without drama". In 2020 during the Covid lockdown, Iceland's 'Let it all out' campaign featured harried folks screaming their lungs out in remote scenic locations. It was an instant hit and showcased the country with zany humour.

{Homegrown artists, niche family stores and vibrant creative communities need to be rehabilitated and offered low-rent space in prime locations...

Hong Kong would do well to return to its local designer roots rather than pushing bland luxury shopping for Mainland visitors who have moved elsewhere. Homegrown artists, niche family stores and vibrant creative communities need to be rehabilitated and offered low-rent space in prime locations. These are the people most marginalised by Covid and the relentless march of monoculture malls.

Japan was the main tourism market for Hong Kong in the 1970s followed by Southeast Asia and North America. Europe's share grew steadily but by the 1990s China and Taiwan had emerged as the top sources and the government put all its eggs in the Mainland basket. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

Following an arrivals dip, a 2015 research brief by the Legislative Council Secretariat called for diversification of source markets and candidly concluded the slowdown reflected "over-reliance on Mainland visitors." It also revealed that since the launch of Disneyland in 2005, newer spots like Ngong Ping 360 and Sky 100 had proved "not particularly attractive".

To pull itself out of the bog, the Hong Kong government has two splendid allies — Cathay Pacific Airways (to influence and fly in international visitors) and the MTR (to whisk them into the hidden interior). There is much these three can do in concert.

A quasi-government body, the MTR Corporation has a laudable 'community support' mission that can be brought vigorously to the fore. By November 2023 the domestic train network was carrying 4.9m persons daily. That's a lot of eyeballs, not counting the Airport Express and general station traffic. The MTR is in an excellent position to galvanise passengers (including tourists) to sightsee, discover local markets and explore. The maps at stations are instructive but, given its heft and reach, the corporation can do much more.  

At Kam Sheung Road Station that serves Kam Tin township, for example, there is zero effort to promote the colourful, entirely neglected, flea market on adjacent MTR land. Instead of boosting engagement there is talk of shutting it down later in the year in favour of yet another bland shopping mall. This does nothing to inspire urban weekenders in search of something different.

Just around the corner from this station are The Richfield cafes housed in reimagined shipping containers, and the fabulous Red Brick House Market, a former candle factory turned bric-a-brac weekend treat with everything from a fine bakery to candles, art, garments, and handicrafts. Next door, the decades-old Sum Ngai Brass Factory run by four siblings, has a charm all its own.

For a conglomerate that reported a first half 2023 profit of HK$2.4 billion, it would cost almost nothing to set up some bright billboards and posters around the station to draw attention to these areas. Buskers and artists can be offered performance space. Catchy, informative artworks on trains can encourage a spirit of discovery in concert with the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Hotels already promote neighbourhood cafes and stores with discount coupons and maps for their guests.

Such an approach could positively impact other struggling areas like Sham Shui Po, Temple Street, the Tung Choi Street ladies' market, and historic spots like the Ping Shan Heritage trail. It can pique interest in the outdoors. The MTR Corporation cannot appear to be a lazy landlord. It must become a community catalyst.

It is time for the real Hong Kong to be put on display. No one who visits the territory can fail to be stirred. This is one of the world's most exciting destinations. Forget 'World City' and 'Welcome to the Greatest Show On Earth'.

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