While the story of tourism in chaotic Hong Kong this year is specific to that place, it also points to the tenuousness of the global tourism industry as a whole.
The story of Hong Kong in 2019 is a story of many things: self-determination, the price of democracy, and the maturation of the global superpower that is China. But it’s also a story about tourism. Or more specifically, how much even a robust and well-established tourism economy depends on the stability, safety, and predictability of its destination.
Of course, protests and civil unrest have rocked tourism destinations before. But the persistence of the protests in Hong Kong — which is to say the persistence of pro-democracy sentiment there — has meant that the reputation and safety of the city has plummeted to levels that will be hard to bounce back from quickly. At least for the foreseeable future, Hong Kong’s tourism industry has been irrevocably changed.
The grim story is told in the numbers. International arrivals have fallen by more than 40 percent. Hong Kong International Airport in November lost nearly one million passengers, a 16 percent drop from the year before. Flag carrier Cathay Pacific just reported the fourth consecutive monthly drop in inbound traffic, shrinking 46 percent year-over-year in November.
The story in Hong Kong picked up over the summer, when Skift asked the provocative question: What if Hong Kong Falls? The Worst Case Scenario for Travel. Imagining Hong Kong as just another Chinese city may sound like a stretch, but since we published that piece four months ago, the “one country, two systems” approach has looked increasingly strained. Our coverage also spanned the travel industry’s plea for government assistance, the woes of Hong Kong’s biggest airline carriers, as well as the regional implications of a tourism powerhouse faltering.
While much of the story of Hong Kong is specific to that place, it also points to the tenuousness of the global tourism industry as a whole. While political strife and civic unrest will always be at odds with the aims of tourism — visitors, after all, usually just want to have a nice and peaceful time — one of the reasons international travel has seen such rapid global growth in the last two decades is because of the relative stability of much of the world.
The lesson from Hong Kong is that stability and prosperity can be taken away surprisingly quickly. That will become even more true with existential issues like climate change on the horizon. In fighting for something much more important than tourism revenue and robust GDP, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters have unintentionally reminded the tourism industry of how much it has to lose.
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Photo credit: Demonstrators look through water barriers outside West Kowloon Station as the city skyline stands during a protest in Hong Kong. Justin Chin / Bloomberg