1st October 2023 – (Hong Kong) The long-awaited reopening of borders between Hong Kong and mainland China was expected to deliver a major boost to Hong Kong’s battered tourism industry. However, the recovery has been slower than anticipated, with Mainland visitor numbers over the recent Golden Week holiday period falling short of expectations.
As the Mid-Autumn Festival coincided with National Day celebrations, the contrast was stark between the crowds of Hong Kong residents heading north and the more modest numbers coming south. For instance, on Mid-Autumn Festival day itself, only 75 mainland tour groups entered Hong Kong, while around 500,000 Hong Kongers crossed the border into Shenzhen just that day.
Total arrivals in Hong Kong reached just over 260,000 as of 29th September, down 16% compared to the first day of the May Golden Week. While hoped the numbers would pick up after the holiday, mainland tourists lamented that popular attractions felt lacklustre compared to crowded Mainland destinations. Many mainlanders admitted they no longer shop as heavily in Hong Kong, as domestic e-commerce now offers abundant choice. Even Hong Kong’s famed “banquet” restaurants in Tsim Sha Tsui and Hung Hom saw a noticeable decline in tour group customers.
Meanwhile, the crowds of Hong Kong shoppers flocking north reached new heights. On just the first day of the holiday, around 330,000 departed through land checkpoints, with total departures over the eight days projected to reach 5 million. Deep into Shenzhen, Hong Kong faces abounded in restaurants and malls, with many even booking hotel stays to extend their trip. As they enthusiastically declared, prices were far cheaper in Shenzhen, selections were abundant, venues were grander, and service was superior to Hong Kong’s increasingly lacklustre offerings.
The contrast paints a concerning picture for Hong Kong’s tourism, retail and dining sectors. Since benefitting from Beijing’s individual travel policy, they coasted through a long golden period with easy profits guaranteed by mainland visitors’ free-spending sprees. But global conditions have changed, the pandemic disrupted travel, and mainland cities have rapidly developed, eroding Hong Kong’s former advantages.
Undeniably, operating costs are higher in Hong Kong, with exorbitant rents and labour shortages still plaguing the industry. Limited land and venue space also constrain growth potential. However, focusing solely on these structural disadvantages risks missing the crux of the problem—Hong Kong’s service sectors have simply failed to progress with the times and give customers, especially mainlanders, good reason to return.
Complacency and close-mindedness have led to this predicament. In recent years, numerous reports emerged of Hong Kong shops detrimentally profiling and mistreating mainland customers. The “touting and forced shopping” problem also remains unresolved, further entrenching the impression of Hong Kong as a “rip-off” destination. Furthermore, generic offerings from restaurants and retailers no longer capture the imagination like the endless variety available on the Mainland.
Lacklustre marketing efforts like “Night Vibes Hong Kong” have clearly struggled to excite visitors or locals. And the service culture still leaves much to be desired—in Hong Kong, visitors often feel more like nuisances rather than welcomed guests. Meanwhile, the glaring juxtaposition with Shenzhen’s energetic vibe and ever-improving amenities speaks for itself.
To get tourism back on track, Hong Kong must move with the times and look critically at how it can enhance competitiveness. Proactively reshaping Hong Kong’s appeal and strengthening visitor experiences is the only way forward.
Following are some proposals for how key stakeholders can help reinvigorate tourism:
- Review ineffective campaigns like “Night Vibes Hong Kong” and develop promotions showcasing Hong Kong’s unique identity, not just generic concepts. Collaborate with social media influencers and travel platforms popular among mainland youth.
- Step up enforcement against touting, forced shopping and prosecuting. Empower the Consumer Council and Tourism Commission to apply penalties for repeated offences.
- Accelerate infrastructure projects to expand transport capacity, develop new attractions and improve overall convenience. Streamline procedures for venue licensing and event approvals.
- Offer more experiential products catering to emerging mainland tourism trends like cultural tours, eco-tours, sports tourism, staycations and themed attractions.
- Adopt cutting-edge technologies like VR/AR and digital marketing to captivate younger demographics. Enable seamless mobile payments and digital integration.
- Improve language abilities and cultural sensitivity training, especially towards mainland tourists. Implement severe consequences for discriminatory treatment of customers.
- Revamp merchandise and F&B selections to offer unique products and experiential dining that mainland visitors cannot easily find elsewhere. Showcase high-quality local goods and creative concepts.
- Refurbish aged facilities and shop layouts. Keep venues clean and appealing. Enhance training to deliver genuinely welcoming “Hong Kong-style” service.
- Implement hiring incentives and improve working conditions to ease labour shortages. Streamline operations to maintain reasonable prices and portions despite higher overheads.
By recognising that the world has changed, Hong Kong can absolutely regain its shine as a world-class destination. But this will require open-mindedness to overhaul the status quo across policy, marketing and industry practices. Though the road ahead will not be easy, the hard work will certainly pay off in renewed tourism growth and the revived vibrancy that Hong Kong is known for.