1st April 2024 – (Hong Kong) After three long years of stringent Covid curbs that sealed off the city, the lifting of pandemic restrictions earlier this year was meant to usher in a triumphant rebound for one of Asia’s premiere destinations. Pent-up wanderlust would send tourists flocking back to Hong Kong’s glitzy malls, Michelin-starred restaurants and raucous night markets.

Yet the warm welcome mat has so far given way to a different spectacle: a record exodus of locals seeking their own long-denied travel redemption.

During the recent Easter holiday, Hong Kong’s airport was teeming not with inbound travelers but with outbound residents chasing open horizons everywhere from Tokyo to Taipei. Over 130,000 people departed during just two days, according to immigration tallies. The throngs spilled into serpentine check-in queues snaking through terminals.

“There’s nothing left to do in Hong Kong,” grumbled one resident preparing to take off.

After years of upheaval that battered Hong Kong’s reputation – from 2019’s disruptive street protests to Beijing’s ensuing slate of political reforms – the scene captures the city’s hustle to restore its luster with tourists, both international and from mainland China. While arrivals have rebounded from the pandemic nadir, Hong Kong risks being overshadowed by cheaper and more enticing options siphoning away its once-reliable visitor streams.

Hong Kong’s tourist board forecasts just 25.8 million arrivals this year, less than half of pre-pandemic levels and a far cry from the record 65.1 million in 2018. Of those predicted visitors, eight out of 10 will hail from mainland China – sharpening Hong Kong’s reliance on a single market even as Chinese consumer appetites evolve amid economic strains at home.

The obstacles highlight how Hong Kong must urgently revamp its tourism pitch to keep from falling behind. While the city leans into promoting authentic local experiences, from hiking trails to heritage dim sum shops, magnets like lavish art exhibits and mega-concerts have been skipped over by major acts drawn to venues in rival destinations that can pack in bigger crowds.

“Our recovery is on the right track,” insists Dane Cheng, executive director of the city’s Tourism Board, while acknowledging “we do not see the trajectory being a steep influx.” After splurging on baubles and handbags on past trips, mainland tourists’ spending habits have shifted towards more affordable indulgences capturing Hong Kong’s heritage, like egg tarts and milk tea, Cheng said. In-bound Chinese accounted for 73% of Hong Kong’s total tourism dollars in 2019; that share is unlikely to return to previous heights given pretenders like Thailand, Japan and Taiwan that beckon with weaker currencies.

Simon Lee, an economist at Chinese University of Hong Kong, notes the city had previously “indulged” in ballooning mainland arrivals drawn by higher-end shopping – leaving local attractions comparatively underdeveloped. “We did not have to think about our tourism portfolio or attractiveness to other international visitors,” he said.

Now Hong Kong is scrambling to diversify its appeal. “Instead of big spending and shopping every day, they are now here for more local, cultural experiences,” Lee said of mainland visitors. “But we are weak in this area.”

Hong Kong’s retail scene, which had reliably perked up with big-spending mainland sprees, is on Shaky ground. During a promotion this spring that gave away 500,000 air tickets to spur arrivals, some winners complained they were reluctant to actually visit due to elevated costs in Hong Kong.

The city’s 19.6% rise in retail sales volumes for June from a year earlier indicated an uptick of domestic spending by Hongkongers – but disappointing tourist numbers underwhelmed the tally. Luxury brands have also shifted more emphasis to marketing directly to mainland consumers in the mainland and circumventing Hong Kong.

As part of its campaign to diversify Hong Kong’s offerings, the tourism board has rolled out chic marketing touting more experiential local itineraries – think hiking Dragon’s Back ridge trail with a view of the city’s iconic skyline, or grazing at a street food stall tucked in a bustling open-air market.

Chief among challenges, however, is enticing marquee attractions that can put Hong Kong back on every jet-setter’s radar. Concerts are often seen as fertile territory to drive arrivals – but industry players gripe the city lacks suitable venues for modern, arena-level acts. This year’s stop in Singapore by megastar Taylor Swift, for instance, will lure a projected 350,000 fans from overseas.

Noting Hong Kong’s comparative deficiency in stadium scale, Mr. Cheng said bluntly: “We won’t have something of that scale until late 2024,” referring to a new 50,000-seat sports complex nearing completion.

To be sure, Hong Kong is luring some crowd-pulling acts and events propelling its resurgence – just not on the wattage of a Samsung or HSBC sponsoring a Swift tour. The Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre predicts it will recover 80% of pre-pandemic levels in terms of number of exhibitions in 2023. However, critics say the city has flubbed too many other chances to snare major spectacles suited to its self-billed stature as “Asia’s World City.” The Taylor Swift tour controversy saw fans lambaste the Tourism Board for failing to land the superstar’s shows. Officials complained that Swift’s team was focused on fitting massive venues with larger capacities into the tour’s routing. Earlier this spring, Miami’s Ultra electronic dance music festival pulled the plug on touted plans to expand into Hong Kong.

Many commentators contend that city leaders’ foundered bids highlight the deficiencies in Hong Kong’s master plan for attracting headlining events to update its reputation. Among the most buzzed-about attractions to hit the city in recent years is the downtown West Kowloon Cultural District, home to new world-class art museums. Yet even those draws have sparked gripes that their programming is overly curated for mainland audiences only in the initial stages of cultural tourism’s revival.

Dissenters have also groused about the Hong Kong government’s HK$50 million splurge to bring Japanese artist collective TeamLab’s digital art exhibition to Hong Kong’s harbourfront this year, dismissing the pop instalment’s disconnect from local culture. Lawmaker Gary Zhang decried the need for “characteristic activities related to Hong Kong culture” instead of jetlagged crowd-pleasing imports. “Almost every local event or tourist attraction is connected to a region’s culture or history. When you see an event, you will think of that city.”

Indeed, as the city branches into marketing more homegrown experiences beyond high-end shopping and celebrities, other experts note that Hong Kongers themselves still tend to look outward when it comes to holidays.

Liza Huang, 37, a makeup artist from the mainland’s Guangdong province, recently traveled to Hong Kong solely to attend a concert performance by Cantopop diva Joey Yung at the Academy for Performing Arts. She intended to take the high-speed rail back home directly after the curtain call, rather than turning her brief visit into a full-fledged tourist stay.

“A lot of people in my circle come here just to watch shows,” said Huang. “It’s convenient, and there are more international performers in Hong Kong.”

For now, those vignettes spotlight why the “Asia’s World City” brand isn’t luring its own residents when they catch travel fever. At Hong Kong’s airport Easter rush, one local griped of the doldrums that sent him fleeing abroad: “There’s nothing to do here.”

Hong Kong must urgently recover its sense of revelry to avoid its former admirers taking their spending money elsewhere for good. Otherwise, the tourism vital signs will show more flight than fancy – no amount of egg tarts and milk tea can pasture that.