19th February 2024 – (Hong Kong) As Hong Kong charts its post-pandemic future, revitalising tourism has emerged as an urgent priority to reinvigorate the economy. However, the path remains steep given global headwinds. Experts propose a strategic pivot – streamlining visa policies, enhancing marketing and experiences, and leveraging mainland ties – to redefine Hong Kong as Asia’s premier destination.

Domestic consumption improved in 2023, but exports and investment lagged. Arrivals from short-haul markets like Southeast Asia led, while long-haul visitors remained depressed. Multiple factors explain the lacklustre rebound. With many workers departing the industry, manpower shortages have affected hospitality capacity. High interest rates reduced attractiveness of travel. The strong Hong Kong dollar increased costs for visitors. Fierce regional competition for tourists added pressure.

Most critically, lingering COVID-19 restrictions deterred visitors even after Hong Kong reopened borders in 2023. Cumbersome travel procedures, including health codes and testing requirements, prevented travel from resuming smoothly. Strict quarantine policies also tarnished Hong Kong’s reputation as an easily accessible destination.

According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, 2023 may deliver 26 million arrivals – still well below the 65 million in 2018. But unpredictable global conditions make forecasts speculative. Without strategic reforms, recovery to pre-pandemic tourism levels appears unlikely for years.

Experts argue visa policy reform is long overdue to boost arrivals, especially from mainland China – historically Hong Kong’s largest market. Currently, mainlanders must join tour groups for entry, while individual travel requires special permits issued only to Shenzhen residents and select cities. Easing visa rules could unlock significant pent-up demand. Mainland overtook North America as the world’s largest outbound travel market in 2022, reaching 260 million trips. Surveys show over 70% of mainlanders plan to travel in 2023 after years of COVID-19 curbs. This appetite for tourism represents a golden opportunity at Hong Kong’s doorstep.

Specifically, expanding individual visit permits beyond Shenzhen and incremental cities to the entire Guangdong province could deliver an immediate influx. Linking visa-free access to Chinese mobile payment apps like WeChat Pay would streamline entry, as pioneered between Shenzhen and Macau. Eventually, individual permits could be extended nationwide, as Singapore has negotiated with Beijing.

Relaxed visa access for Mainlanders would also strengthen Hong Kong’s role as the conduit for outbound Chinese tourism. The city’s airports offer ideal transit hubs connecting mainland travellers to onward global destinations. Easing visa rules provides a competitive edge over rival Asian hubs like Bangkok, Seoul and Tokyo. Visa relaxation should form part of a broader reform package to refresh Hong Kong’s appeal. The city’s tourism offerings remained largely unchanged for years prior to the pandemic. Revitalising attractions and marketing is overdue.

Firstly, large-scale infrastructure projects like the Kai Tak Sports Park, Hong Kong Palace Museum, and Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge have expanded options for visitors. However, lacklustre promotion failed to capitalise on new assets. Showcasing these highlights through creative campaigns and media partnerships is essential.

Secondly, experiential travel is surging globally, prioritizing cultural immersion, eco-adventure and wellness. By contrast, Hong Kong fixates on shopping and dining. While retaining these strengths, Hong Kong must diversify into interactive tours showcasing heritage, creativity and nature. Collaboration with online travel agencies like TripAdvisor and Ctrip can enhance discovery.

Thirdly, major international events which Hong Kong excelled in attracting previously, like the Rugby Sevens, ATP tennis tournament and Clockenflap music festival, should return in full strength. Meanwhile, new sports, cultural and lifestyle events tailored to changing tastes must be courted.

Closer synergy with Mainland cities via the Greater Bay Area (GBA) initiative is indispensable to bolster Hong Kong’s attractiveness. Joint promotion of multi-destination itineraries combining Hong Kong’s vibrant metropolis with Guangdong’s dynamic cities allows appealing to broader markets.

Visa-free transit through Hong Kong’s airport for GBA residents would also stimulate leisure tourism. Travel between Hong Kong and Macau is already seamless; extending similar ease to neighbouring Shenzhen, Guangzhou and other Pearl River Delta cities creates a world-class regional leisure hub spanning the GBA.

Some argue mainland integration risks overwhelming Hong Kong’s infrastructure and public services. However managed growth that expands the economic pie benefits both Hong Kong and the GBA overall. With coordination, Hong Kong can achieve a sustainable revival.

To reclaim its mantle as Asia’s top tourist destination, Hong Kong must leverage its strengths – efficient transport, low crime, world-class hotels and shopping – while rebooting for the future. Streamlining visa access, particularly for high-spending mainland travellers, is crucial. Creative marketing, diversified attractions and closer GBA coordination will also rejuvenate Hong Kong’s global appeal. With the pandemic receding as a factor, it is now up to Hong Kong to orchestrate its tourism revival. The roadmaps proposed must be implemented with vision and expediency. The window of opportunity is open, but competitors are capitalising. By pursuing strategic reforms, Hong Kong can regain its tourism mojo and beyond.