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A long overdue repositioning of Hong Kong’s tourism offering is in the cards — finally.

While Hong Kong Tourism Board’s immediate priority is rightly focused on recovery, industry members said the wider concern is how the coronavirus pandemic and pro-democracy protests have exposed Hong Kong’s lack of tourism vision and the need for a reinvention.

That concern is being heard. At a web conference for industry members last Friday, the tourism board’s chairman YK Pang told 1,500 attendees that Covid-19 “is in fact an ideal time for us to review and rethink Hong Kong’s position in the global tourism market and elevate service standard.”

Together with the travel trade, the board will map out the long-term development strategy for the tourism industry, he promised.

In an interview with Skift after the meeting, the tourism board’s executive director, Dane Cheng, said discussions on “redefining and re-crafting the visitor experience” started even before the Covid-19 crisis.

“When I came in [November 2019], I proposed to the government and the board that we should relook this, because a lot of things have changed, including Hong Kong’s image in the world, travelers’ patterns and preferences, the way we communicate with them,” Cheng said.

Covid-19 only made it more essential. During the web conference, Pang said he foresees a new tourism landscape post-pandemic. Hygiene standards will be the top priority; short breaks and wellness-themed trips will be popular.

The tourism board is reaching out to stakeholders — hotels, inbound agencies, retail, dining, et cetera — for views on repositioning. It will appoint a branding agency later on.

“This will be a separate exercise from our recovery planning,” said Cheng. “A redefined visitor experience won’t happen overnight. There are areas beyond the jurisdiction of the tourism board that we have to discuss with the government.”

Why it’s Overdue

While Hong Kong is still in the top 15 of World Economic Forum’s Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report, it fell to 14th position in the 2019 index, from 11th in 2017. And, for the first time, China tourism was more competitive than Hong Kong at 13th position, from 15th in 2017.

Similarly, Best Cities’ current ranking shows Beijing at 16th place and Hong Kong at 19th.

This reflects poorly on a five-year blueprint launched in 2017 to develop Hong Kong into a world-class premier tourism destination.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, destinations don’t fall in competitiveness overnight. For Antonio Teijeiro, a hotel general manager and specialist in Greater China, it began with the city’s years of dependency on the China market, which breeds complacency.

“Hong Kong hospitality industry’s complete reliance on mainland tourists has actually increased over the years and despite the blueprint’s effort towards market diversification,” said Teijeiro.

China acccounts for 79 percent of Hong Kong’s arrivals. In contrast, its biggest Asian city rival Singapore relies 20 percent on the China market.

“The blueprint banks on the potential offered by the Greater Bay Area, Belt & Road, Hong Kong-Zhuhai Macao Bridge and Express Rail Link opportunities. Unfortunately, these new infrastructure projects only contribute to increasing mainland arrivals,” Teijeiro pointed out.

Tourism “mass-ification” is being further encouraged by cruising, he said. “Cruise ships are known to drive overtourism, squeezing locals out of their areas in favor of bland restaurants and typical souvenir shop. By improving transport connectivity for the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal and its surrounding area, and streamlining immigration clearance procedures [for passengers who transit at Hong Kong], the blueprint aims to increase cruise dockings.”

Last year, Hong Kong’s total cruise throughput was close to 1.6 million passengers.

A Clear Opportunity

With arrivals sinking to below 100 a day at the start of April, most locals and organizations now have a keener appreciation of tourism’s importance, which is “a clear opportunity” to press for much stronger support and recognition from authorities, said hotel expert Giovanni Angelini, former CEO of Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts based in Hong Kong.

“A good starting point is the creation of a full-fledged tourism ministry, with an adequate portfolio and budget to promote the destination to new markets, and to create interesting attractions and reasons to visit,” said Angelini.

“Key attractions such as Ocean Park and Hong Kong Disneyland are getting outdated and losing the interest of international visitors.”

Above all, the political protests must be addressed and resolved, said Angelini.

Richard Willis, managing director, Diethelm Travel Hong Kong, has three wishes: for Hong Kong to develop untapped markets, work/cooperate more with regional destinations, and enhance its infrastructure, facilities and services for “massive” markets such as the Muslim market.

Tourism chief Dane Cheng: Rebranding will be more than just an ad campaign or catchy slogan. Photo: Hong Kong Tourism Board

Tourism chief Cheng agrees that “there are a lot of things we could do more and we could do better.”

“For example, we are surrounded by a beautiful harbor — can we make better use of it with more water-based activities? People think of Hong Kong as being very crowded, dense and intense, but in fact a large part of Hong Kong is park and rural areas. Can we make better use of that by developing holiday resorts and wilderness activities? We have events that are the envy of others, such as Rugby Sevens and Art Basel Hong Kong, can we do more so that when people come to Hong Kong there is always something great going on?” he said.

The board’s 2020/21 budget starting April is $145 million (HK$1,120 million), of which $52 million will be spent on supporting the trade in recovery initiatives when Covid-19 abates. Cheng believes the funding is “sufficient.”

“We have funds but we’re not part of the government that hands out cash. We want to support and enable marketing and promotional ideas, so we welcome partners who have these ideas,” he said.

Cheng’s recovery plan is in three stages, starting with joint promotions with the retail and restaurant sectors to stimulate locals to spend and holiday at home. Next, subsidizing the trade to intensify promotions in source markets that can travel, followed by stepping up promotions and subsidizing efforts to attract meetings and conventions. This includes a new initiative with the hotel sector to provide groups with free meeting or dining packages.

Jumpstarting the domestic market is likely to start in May. The number of Covid-19 cases peaked in Hong Kong at end-March and reported no new ones on Monday.

“We have a population of over 7.5 million and Hong Kong people are seasoned travelers. We fly out on weekends for a getaway. Since we can’t fly, why not rediscover home?” said Cheng.

“It’s a higher order — we want to rekindle Hong Kong people’s interest and love for this place, by people I mean not just Cantonese or Chinese-speaking but our expat community.”

It’s clear he sees an opportunity to restore Hong Kong’s image at home, not just internationally. But he admits the protests will remain a challenge.

“When other destinations talk about recovery, they will be talking about recovery to the pre-virus state. And they will move on to new norms and behaviors. For Hong Kong, it will be more challenging because of the [protests]. To be honest, I think the protests will continue for a while, running up to our Legislative Council in September,” said Cheng.

What number of arrivals would he be pleased with in 2020? It will take “quite some time” for tourism to get back to the level of 2018, the year Hong Kong had 65 million arrivals, which fell to 56 million in 2019.

“I’d be very happy if we could have the same number of visitors in the fourth quarter of this year as [the fourth quarter] last year.”

Photo Credit: The Peak Tram Hong Kong skyline. The Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels.