SCMP Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Tempting the tourist

How times have changed. Before 1997, fears of an influx of mainlanders after the handover prompted the authorities to put up hurdles to control the flow of tourists and immigrants to Hong Kong.
Four years after the handover, while barriers against mainland immigrants remain high, we are so desperate for tourist dollars that Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung is pleading with Beijing to relax the restrictions to allow in more mainland visitors.
The irony is while we want more of them to come, the 1,500 daily quota for mainland tourists is not being fully used. There are allegations that the four mainland operators who hold a monopoly of organising package tours to Hong Kong might have conspired to keep numbers down and prices high. But the problem is being addressed by increasing the number of operators to 17 and the quota to 2,000 from next month.
The complex procedures aimed at controlling mainland visitor numbers are still discouraging many from coming. For example, whereas they can visit a number of Southeast Asian countries visa-free, they have to apply for a permit to visit Hong Kong, and that takes months.
With rising standards of living, an increasing number of mainlanders can now afford to travel. In the first six months of this year, nearly 5.5 million mainlanders visited 190 countries, up 10 per cent on the same period last year. If these countries have no qualms about admitting tourists from the mainland, even though illegal Chinese immigration remains a problem in some, there is a strong case for Hong Kong to lift some of the barriers against mainland visitors.
But even if the mainlanders had unrestricted access, Hong Kong people must discard their discriminatory attitude towards our compatriots from the north to make the SAR a favoured destination. Many who came have told of stories about poor reception at the border, and discriminatory service and rip-offs at shops and hotels.
Their complaints are not unique, as tourists from elsewhere have similar grievances. Some of them were probably caused by miscommunication, or otherwise blown out of proportion.
Hong Kong people are not known for being courteous, to fellow citizens as well as tourists. That has something to do with the crowded conditions in which they live and the lack of a culture of service. The Tourism Board is trying to initiate a change in attitude, with some success.
But change we must. Hong Kong people must realise that the present-day visitors from the mainland are no country bumpkins. They have come to see what China's most prosperous city is like, and the money they spend enriches our economy. They deserve the best service we can offer to tourists from anywhere else. We let them down at our peril.