A little ray of sunshine brightens the gloom on this shortest day of the year: Hong Kong’s tourism industry is dying a horrible painful death, its blood oozing down the gutters of Nathan Road, trickling across the Avenue of Stars, and drip-drip-dripping into the harbour. The reason, according to the South China Morning Post headline, is local anti-Mainland sentiment…
Confusingly (and if we are to be brutally honest, rather disappointingly), the strapline blames a crackdown by Mainland authorities. Then the article itself ventures to suggest a third cause for the decline, namely the tourism industry’s own despicable and surely counterproductive habit of killing visitors who fail to spend sufficient amounts of money.
Readers are further bemused when they learn that the calamity facing the city’s most (or second- or third-most) unpopular economic sector is less fatal and gory than we are led to believe. The number of visitors from the Mainland (or ‘China’ as the pre-Alibaba SCMP calls it) is down by a microscopic 0.2%. The only market segment to experience a halfway noticeable downturn, of 20%, is Mainland tour groups – the ragged, red-cheeked peasants who alight buses in Tsimshatsui East to squat and gaze around them in shock at the sight paved roads and electric lighting. Meanwhile, my own neighbourhood is inundated with selfie-stick-waving Koreans, whose infatuation with the area is as boundless as it is inexplicable. (Perhaps they are fleeing the Mainland tourists who, the Hong Kong tourism lobby sometimes-but-not-this-time complains, are doing their shopping in Seoul rather than here.)
Despite the dishearteningly modest decline in the Tourist Menace, there are signs that Hong Kong’s tacky luxury retailers have over-extended themselves and are starting to scale back, at least in some locations. This frees up space for shops selling useful and affordable things to local people, like we used to have in the old days. The SCMP reports the opening of a new bookstore branch in Times Square as part of this trend. But the reporter can’t get her head round her own paper’s fixation with the landlord lobby’s whining…
…and describes the book outlet’s expansion as if were happening despite rather than because of the Tourism/Retail Gushing-Blood Disaster Mayhem. (Times Square is course the mall that Page One had to quit earlier this year.)
So, in truth, luxury retailers’ shallow, short-term business strategies and Mainland clampdowns on homicidal tour-operators are not accompanying the serious fall in tourist numbers we would all like to see. But we should not give up hope. Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign looks set to continue, perhaps further depressing demand for such bribe-matter as high-end watches and pricey folk medicines. The Chinese government also wants to boost domestic consumer spending, which could – fingers crossed – reduce incentives to shop offshore. Even more enticingly, as well as the peg pulling the Hong Kong Dollar up, Beijing’s past economic mismanagement makes a weakening Renminbi look highly likely. To some extent, we might see a return of the days when it was Hongkongers who crossed the border for cheap stuff, as nature surely intended.
Meanwhile, we can all enjoy the agony and wailing of the tourism industry as it imagines itself to be in pain. And we can lick our lips in anticipation of how loud the parasites will squeal when visitor arrivals and rents really start to drop.