This blog post can also be viewed at SCMP.COM
To date, political legitimacy remains an alien concept in Hong Kong. There is but one law in politics, however, and for all the ineptitude and inertia of the Special Administrative Region’s special administrators, they live by it. Failure to do so would be rather to invite the scorn of governing classes the world over, and for good reason, because it is an incredibly simple law. Indeed, all it demands is activity – any activity. Or at the least the semblance of activity. It is, of course, the Do Something law, and it requires that Something Must Be Done. For any problem (or perceived problem) at hand, Doing Something is the thing. Doing Something, mark you, needn’t involve any kind of solution. Usually, spending public money and/or setting up a new body composed of well-remunerated factotums will suffice.
Sure as eggs is eggs, there was always going to be a reaction to figures trickling through in recent weeks and months regarding “reduced” numbers of mainland tourist visits to Hong Kong. First came the calls from the tourism lobby for more government money to arrest such a distressing and inadmissible slide. Yiu Si-wing, the tourism sector lawmaker and director of China Travel Service, suggested Beijing might be approached to consider adding to the list of cities whose residents it allows to visit Hong Kong on individual travel permits. “It is essential that Hong Kong’s hoteliers and shop landlords maintain their profit margins, and the only way we can do this is to beg the central government to keep sending us more nouveau riche suckers from cities we’ve never heard of,” he said. OK, yeah, I made most of that quote up but the gist of it is accurate.
The big issues call for the heavy-hitters, though, and so, after giving the matter the benefit of his consideration, last week Henry Tang Ying-yen took a break from whatever it is he has been doing since failing to become Chief Executive in 2012 to announce that what was needed was a Tourism Bureau to sort things out. Such a bureau would “capture development opportunities”, you understand.
Insofar as the numbers are in any sense down, incidentally, it is their rate of growth which is down. With the headline annual figure rising sharply ever since restrictions on tourist visas to Hong Kong for mainlanders were first eased in 2003, the city now receives some 60 million such tourists, accounting for around 80 per cent of all tourists in the SAR, every year. Analysts predict growth will slow over the next five years to three per cent annually. In anyone’s book that is still more people from over the border coming to Hong Kong, which by 2020 will remain the biggest market for outbound mainland tourists.
Granted, overall market share is down and ergo Something Must Be Done. But still – some issues spring to mind. Chief among these is that capturing a greater proportion of mainland tourist numbers is likely to interest Hongkongers even less than having Henry Tang as their chief executive. It’s not hard to read the public mind on this: popular antipathy towards visitors from the PRC, whether grounded in reason, self-regard or simply narrow-mindedness, has been a consistent feature of Hong Kong life for some time now. And whatever the over-riding sentiment, objections to an ever-increasing mainland tourist presence have more logic to them than any policy of soliciting that presence with no real discernible benefits to Hong Kong.
There is, firstly, the obvious point that the city’s ability to easily absorb more tourist numbers has not kept pace with their growth over the last decade and more. Frustrations over the transformation of a retail landscape that used to serve the needs of local people are also understandable. Equally pertinent, though, is that the economic arguments for attracting lots more mainland tourists are largely poppycock, as has been ably demonstrated by the Post’s Jake van der Kamp on several occasions. Sure, tourism tends to benefit that small rent-seeking class of corporate landlords who call the tune in Hong Kong, but it benefits few others – including, arguably, those whom the industry keeps in low-skilled, low-paid jobs. Meanwhile, the city sees little of the gains from money spent with foreign-owned air carriers and hotel groups, or on imported food, drink and luxury goods. In light of which reality the only sane response to the revelation that increasing numbers of mainlanders are now choosing to visit Japan instead of Hong Kong because it’s currently cheaper to buy a Luis Vuitton handbag there might be: “big f***ing deal.”
The suspicion that some of the concrete Henry has been forced to shovel into his illegal basement in Kowloon Tong may have seeped into his brain is also supported by the fact that Hong Kong already has a Tourism Commission. And a Tourism Board. And a Travel Industry Council. Between them, the first two manage to spend around HK$900 million annually. On what is anyone’s guess. The Tourism Commission, by the way, comes under the Industry and Tourism Branch of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, which is not to be confused with the Development Bureau, the Trade Development Council or the Trade and Industry Department. There is also, note, the Economic Analysis and Business Facilitation Unit, something called the Hong Kong Productivity Council, and, remarkably, an Efficiency Unit.
It’s not hard to get a flavour of what Henry’s envisaged Bureau might be all about besides gobbling up public funds on its own account. The former Financial Secretary and Chief Secretary of Hong Kong has supported every major infrastructure project and/or tourist “attraction” going, from the Kai Tak cruise terminal to Disneyland, the Macau bridge, high-speed rail and the third runway at Chep Lap Kok. In each instance, the Hong Kong taxpayer has been rinsed to keep airlines, hoteliers, developers and landlords in clover.
In an alternative universe, Hong Kong might be able to attract a more diverse range of visitors drawn not only by the chance to sample over-priced international cuisine and shop at Givenchy. That aim would be supported by an agency brimming with ideas to leverage the city’s heritage and cultural oomph. Henry Tang’s imprint would be nowhere near it.