[SCMP Column] Tourism Gold Mine

February 06, 2016

As a child, I remember those epic David Attenborough natural history programmes about the vast April migrations of wildebeest over Tanzania’s Serengeti plain – in particular the images of that tide of frantic bovine flesh plunging into the Mara River across the jaws of feasting crocodiles.

Every year, as New Year comes around, I remember that awesome migration – and compare it with the world’s hugest human migration – that of China’s migrant workers back to their ancestral villages. This year, Beijing officials estimate that 2.9 billion journeys will be made over the 40 day holiday travel period from January 24. That is 1,500 times as many as the 1.7 million wildebeest that journey northward across the Serengeti Plain every year. It is easy to imagine Guangzhou railway station as an urban equivalent of the Mara River – though I prefer not to imagine the Chinese New Year equivalent of the Mara crocodiles.

The Chinese New Year migration is expected to involve 3.6% more people this year than in 2015 – a mere addition of 100 million journeys. No wonder the government has agreed to build 57,000 new tourist toilets. I am less sure about the new register of “indecent tourist behaviours”, intended to “lay an institutional foundation to enhance the supervision and regulation of ill-behaved tourists”.
If these homeward pilgrimages count as tourism, then it is easy to see how the numbers surrounding China’s tourism sector bust all of my fuses. They point ineluctably to a future not far from today where China’s tourists will be the staple of every tourism industry in just about every country in the world. In 2015, China recorded 4 billion domestic tourist visits and 120 million outbound visits. Compare that with 66 million Americans that made foreign trips, and 16 million Japanese.

Inside China, it is easy to see how the domestic services sector is expanding as it is and how tourism sits at the heart of efforts to grow domestic consumer spending.  The National Tourism Administration says that travel and tourism now account for 10.1% of China’s GDP – and 10.2% of jobs. To my surprise, the biggest tourism destination was neither Beijing nor Shanghai, but Chongqing. Anyone who can explain that one deserves the prize of a second visit to Chongqing.
But for most of us, it will be the global surge of Chinese travelers that will shock the most. The National Tourism Administration says the Chinese travelers contributed 13% of global tourism revenues, and accounted for 10% of the 1.2 billion international travelers in 2015. Still the large majority of Chinese tourists are travelling on group tours, with just 49 cities allowed individual travel to Hong Kong. In a country with 142 cities with a population over 1 million that leaves an awful lot of Chinese who today are still not allowed to plan individual holidays to overseas destinations.

Over the past decade, China’s international travelers have jumped by at least 10% a year. Of course, there is no certainty that growth will continue at these levels, but with so many Mainlanders who still today have barely tasted the pleasures of international travel, my own guess is that will be sustained for many years to come. That suggests an extra 10 million Chinese travelers a year – 170 million a year by 2020, and around 300 million by 2030.

And what does this mean if you are sitting here in Hong Kong? It suggests the schizophrenic conflict will continue to rage between those paranoid about us being swamped, and those paranoid about Mainland Chinese bypassing Hong Kong as they move on to explore more distant, more exotic, destinations.

Personally, I find the second paranoia preposterous. Hong Kong has been the lucky early-wave beneficiary of China’s outbound tourism. Mainland visitors accounted for 77% of the total of 59.3 million visitors to Hong Kong in 2015, and an even larger share of the total tourism spend. Despite the best self-destructive efforts of a xenophobic minority to make Mainland visitors unwelcome, I see no possibility that this flow will dwindle any time soon. True, more Mainland travelers with more money to spend, and more experience of international travel, will want to explore more distant destinations, but there is no way this is likely to be at the expense of Hong Kong. If only a small proportion of the 4 billion domestic holidays are converted in the coming decade to outbound holidays, Hong Kong will be a major beneficiary. If Beijing doubles the number of cities from which individual travel is allowed, the rush to taste “foreign” travel will be huge – with Hong Kong a major beneficiary. Retailers or hoteliers worrying about dwindling spend from a dwindling number of Mainland visitors should worry in other directions – like the need to refresh constantly the reasons for visitors to want to return to a city that is seen worldwide as one of the most exciting and interesting they have ever visited.

The first paranoia is possibly accurate, but I find it wholly unacceptable. Hong Kong is indeed a tiny place that could easily be swamped by the arrival of unmanaged millions from the Chinese Mainland. The response is not to lock and bolt our borders. It is to build a transport infrastructure that is second to none in the world, to make sure that these millions can travel in comfort to and around Hong Kong, just as Hong Kong people can today. The response is to speed completion of 21st century high-speed rail connections; to expand our airport as speedily as possible; to complete the bridge to Zhuhai as soon as we can; and to continue to develop our MTR network. We may yet end up paying a very high price for Legislators playing infantile games to block and filibuster approval of these high priority projects.

China’s capacity to transform the shape of international tourism is considerable. Hong Kong’s opportunity to benefit from this is clear. If we don’t benefit in the process, it will be our own fault.
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