Hong Kong has been in a state of numbed shock over the weekend after Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Gregory So forecasted a possible doubling of tourist arrivals to 100 million a year within a decade. The next three years alone, he said, would bring a rise in annual visitors from last year’s 54.3 million to 70 million. As an ‘open port’, he said, the city cannot set a limit on these numbers, even though residents might have to ‘wait for the next train’ because of overcrowding on the transport system.
A scientifically proven fact for So: you can’t get a quart into a pint pot. So’s colleague Development Secretary Paul Chan stated what ordinary residents all know by pointing out that tourist spots are already saturated. Chan also conceded that somewhere among all the malls and theme parks, the city might need to find a bit of space for its own people to live in.
Perhaps one solution would be to build a giant warehouse right on the Hong Kong side of the border, with an entrance and exit on the Shenzhen side. After standing in line for 72 hours, the Mainland shoppers would go in, have a large funnel inserted into their mouths, and stand on a conveyor belt that passes through 10 feeding stations on each of 20 levels (15 of them below ground). At each station, the shopper would halt for a few seconds while items are pumped into his or her gullet – first baby milk powder, then handbags, then gold necklaces and Buddha statues, then Aguemar Piglet diamond tourbillion watches, then designer-label golfer’s underpants, then skin-whitening cream, then more infant formula, then a box of Lyndhurst Terrace egg tarts, washed down with lashings of Yakult, then more Ralph Lauren golfing underwear, then guaranteed non-fake cordyceps, then (anything I’ve missed?) several other exciting leading luxury brands of each of the above exclusive goods all over again, before he or she is spat out at the end and rolls down to the high-speed rail terminus to be whizzed back to sunny Wenzhou or wherever. A throughput of 11,000 an hour, 24 hours a day, would handle the 100 million.
To put the figure in perspective, Thailand last year accommodated some 26.7 million tourists, for which it has 198,000 square miles of space, versus Hong Kong’s 420 square miles. Even the world’s top destination, France (211,000 square miles) has 80-something million tourists a year. Clearly the number ‘100 million’ is sheer insanity; it won’t happen because it can’t. Local inhabitants will be confiscating tourists’ purchases and burning them and smashing the windows of luxury goods stores by the time the number hits 70 million, and lynching would become a daily occurrence by – I would guess – around 85 million.
So why are our officials coming up with this figure (let’s assume that Paul Chan blurted out a snatch of inescapable reality because he hadn’t received the Line To Take)?
One possible reason is to mollify the ‘tourism sector’; this parasite industry crowds out other economic activities to feed landlords, most of whom happen to be the same families that comprise the property cartel. These people hate Chief Executive CY Leung’s administration, especially after his recently announced increase in welfare for other people. By publicly espousing a policy designed to further enrich them by pretty much literally crushing the life out of the other 99.9% of us, CY perhaps hopes tycoons will stop whining about him to Beijing.
Another possibility is that officials are genuinely favouring the tycoons and using one of their stalest tactics: exaggerating the bad news so we’ll all leap with joy when the truth turns out to be only two-thirds dreadful (ie, just shy of the lynchings-level). A third explanation is that the bureaucrats and the vested interests ultimately controlled by the aforementioned tycoons are trying to justify yet more bloated white-elephant infrastructure projects, or at least a third airport runway. Or a combination of the above.
But there is another possibility, tangled up in all the pro-tycoon official priorities and lame spin-trickery. Even for the bloodsucking tourism industry, there is only limited commercial logic to cramming yet more shoppers into Hong Kong: not only will the city become unlivable for residents, it will be so unpleasant that visitors will go elsewhere. Indeed, vacancies in prime Causeway Bay retail areas suggest we are getting to the limits. The industry itself will choke if it tries to accommodate an additional flood of humanity just to get a few years’ more ultra-high rents for a handful of landlords. Perhaps the tycoons know something we don’t (say, plans by Beijing to cut taxes on luxury goods in the Mainland in 2017); or perhaps their crazed lust for short-term returns forces them into self-destructiveness (in which case, let the 100 million in now and get it over with). But there can only be one other reason for our officials to be so blinkered, so blind to other ways of doing things, and so incapable of seeing an industry that has become unsustainably ravenous and obese: and that is, they’re insane.