HK's tourism industry lacks vision for future

Updated: 2013-02-19 17:17

(China Daily)

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The number of international tourists rose by 3.8 percent worldwide last year, with Hong Kong recording an above 16 percent increase in the number of inbound tourists - more than 70 percent of them from the mainland.

The statistics from the World Tourism Organization are both exciting and worrying. On the positive side, the surge in tourists has brought enormous economic benefits to the HKSAR, boosting the local economy to a large extent. The retail sector, in particular, has benefited a lot from the tourism boom. Since tourism requires a lot of low-skilled labor, the sector has created many low-end jobs that have helped to lower the unemployment rate. Given the fact that nearly half of the city's workforce have only high-school education or below, tourism has played a key role in easing the unemployment problem.

On the other hand, tourism has created tremendous problems for Hong Kong. The current row over so-called parallel goods traders is a splendid example. Critics point out that Hong Kong is already too crowded and its capacity to accommodate tourists is at its limit. Soaring rental costs of shops in prime tourist areas have forced many smaller retail players to close shop or move out. This has led to heated debate over the interests of tourists and local culture.

From the government's point of view, the objective in the past has been to attract as many tourists to the city as possible. Shortly after the SARS outbreak in 2003, when the central government approved the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS) for mainlanders, Hong Kong welcomed the initiative as a way to its economic recovery. Since then, the only objective (at least to the public as a perception) is to raise the number of tourists.

When the IVS brings huge economic benefits to Hong Kong, the tourist industry and the respective authorities are concerned with how to entertain the increasing number of tourists. But, very little has been done to improve infrastructure to cope with the huge tourist influx. There have been suggestions that Hong Kong create more tourist attractions and more reasonably priced hotels. The development of Hong Kong's tourist industry in the past few years, however, has not been based on the suggestions mentioned. This shows one important pitfall in the industry itself - the attention is focused only on economic values.

The government has learned its lesson the hard way. Only after all the negative sides of tourism are exposed, the government said it will study the down-side of tourism and see if there's a need to impose a limit on the number of inbound tourists. Though such a re-examination of the impact of tourism may have come too late, it's better than doing nothing. If the government has a better vision of the development of tourism, many of the problems can be solved.

From the academic point of view, what has happened in Hong Kong is no surprise. It is because there have already been numerous studies on the impact of tourism on local society. Given the fact there are many economies in the world that rely heavily on tourism as a major source of their earnings, studies of tourism on local societies have spanned across different economies. There's a lot of international experience in this field that can be useful to Hong Kong in assessing the pros and cons of the tourism boom. Overseas experience can also help identify possible solutions to the ill effects of increased tourism.

However, industry players are not interested in these studies. Relevant authorities have also turned a blind eye to such studies. As a result, many of these valuable studies are only published in academic journals, which are virtually collecting dust in university libraries.

For the industry players, we don't expect them to keep up with the relevant academic literature in running their businesses. However, if our officials pay more attention to what has been done in the academia, many of the problems can be identified in the very first place. Academics may not have the practical experience in running businesses, but they need to carry out deep research in their findings. The experience of other countries is definitively a good lesson for Hong Kong. If our officials can leverage on past experience, many of their policies adopted can offer real solutions to the problem.

The author is the dean of School of Business, Hang Seng Management College.