24th February 2024 – (Hong Kong) Hong Kong’s faltering tourism industry eyes mainland China as its salvation amidst lingering pandemic doldrums. Expanding the existing individual visit scheme to additional Chinese cities, streamlining travel procedures, and marketing Hong Kong’s uniqueness all aim to recapture the lucrative mainland tourism market. While perhaps unable to recreate the boom years, thoughtful initiatives sustaining visitor flows would deliver an invaluable lifeline.

COVID-19 devastated Hong Kong’s tourism sector, with arrivals plunging over 90% at the industry’s nadir. Though the city has eased travel restrictions faster than regional rivals like Japan, recovery remains slow and painful. Arrivals in 2022 stayed below 5% of pre-pandemic levels despite quarantine-free travel resuming halfway through the year.

However, the recent Lunar New Year delivered some holiday cheer, with over 1.4 million mainland tourists visiting during the Golden Week period. This exceeded pre-pandemic levels and brought back long-absent crowds to shopping districts and tourist sites. Much credit lies with existing efforts to expand the mainland’s individual visit scheme, which lets residents of designated cities travel to Hong Kong independently rather than in tour groups. The holiday bump validated the enormous potential in facilitating mainland access, given its visitors accounted for over three-quarters of arrivals before the pandemic. Thus, further expanding the individual visit scheme emerges as a priority recovery strategy. Adding more mainland cities provides a vast catchment area to draw additional visitors through streamlined channels. Targeting affluent cities also promises to deliver high-value travellers with heavy spending power.

Authorities anticipate the just-announced inclusion of Xian and Qingdao to deliver such benefits. Their large populations and high incomes potentially offer substantial visitor flows. Further expanding eligible cities would magnify these gains, reviving Hong Kong’s tourism ecosystem. Efforts to boost mainland tourism recognise certain realities. Firstly, the individual visit scheme’s existing scope only covers a fraction of major mainland urban centres. Vast untapped potential remains in China’s hundreds of higher-tier cities, many boasting populations in the millions.

Secondly, Mainland tourists already displayed a tremendous affinity for Hong Kong before the pandemic. The city constituted the top outbound travel destination for mainlanders through most of the past decade. In 2018, over 50% of all Chinese outbound travellers visited Hong Kong. Clearly, latent demand persists despite the interim slump.

Reviving Hong Kong’s Mainland tourism appeal is not just a numbers game but requires understanding motivations. Shopping famously featured prominently, with luxury goods and bargains long a powerful draw. But today’s Chinese travellers also increasingly seek diverse experiences, including cultural immersion, outdoor nature, and sophistication.

Here, Hong Kong enjoys inherent advantages over regional rivals through its cosmopolitan energy and vibrant fusion of East and West. Creative promotion of the city’s distinctive lifestyle and heritage will resonate powerfully among younger mainland generations. The right messaging and initiatives can capture travellers seeking engagement beyond material consumption.

At the same time, practical considerations like visa access and convenience must improve. Expanding multiple-entry permit eligibility will encourage longer stays and repeat visitations. Streamlining immigration clearance for increased arrival volumes is also vital. Ongoing large-scale infrastructure projects like new cross-border metro lines can transform access over time.

Additionally, affordability and budget options will broaden appeal. Not every traveller seeks luxury, so competitive packages for middle-class markets ensure accessibility. Here, integrating Hong Kong into Greater Bay Area tourism development plans adds value through multi-destination collaborations.

Tourism’s significance exceeds mere economic impact. Done thoughtfully, it forges mutual understanding and energizes shared culture. This assumes greater meaning given recent divisions between Hong Kong and the mainland. Renewing travel linkages helps heal rifts at the societal level, not just financially.

Some argue mainland tourists would strain the city’s carrying capacity, stir resentment, and distort the economy. But reaping tourism’s benefits requires adapting, not rejecting, realities. With pragmatism and foresight, authorities can balance visitor volumes, promote sustainable practices, and focus on high-yield offerings. Avoiding an influx of quick daytrips would also limit frictions.

Fundamentally, the interests of Hong Kong’s tourism industry and mainland travellers strongly align. The former needs the latter’s patronage, while the latter retains strong affinity towards the city’s unique appeal. Thus, the tourism relationship with mainland China is not some necessary evil but a vital reconnection. Tourism alone cannot restore Hong Kong’s economy overnight given deep-rooted structural factors. But steady visitor flows would help stabilise key sectors and catalyse positive sentiments. This might enable tourism to regain its pre-pandemic role as one of Hong Kong’s four pillar industries.

Admittedly, recreating the unprecedented boom years may prove impossible given changed circumstances but current policy innovations reflect a welcome pragmatism in leveraging accessible advantages. Beyond crisis management, they lay groundwork for sustainable renewal.