SCMP Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Keep the initiative

Last year's EuroChristmas was a worthwhile enterprise, though marred by poor co-ordination and plagued by teething troubles. The organisers forgot that all innovative ideas that raise expectations and are launched in a blaze of publicity have to be right first time or suffer the consequences.
The difficulty in finding sponsors for a repeat performance of what was originally flagged as an annual event is a direct result of the disappointment expressed by early visitors. That is unfortunate because, measured in numbers, EuroChristmas was a success. It attracted over a million people, won the city European TV coverage and came about because Tourism Commission members dreamed up a showpiece for residents and tourists that was imaginative, out-of-the-ordinary and unique in Asia.
But their efforts were spoiled by malfunctioning snow-making machines, unconvincing foam flakes falling in a stiflingly hot atmosphere inside the Convention and Exhibition Centre and an unseemly spot of buck-passing between Coca-Cola China, main sponsors of the "Winter Magic" feature, and tourism officials.
If other cities in the region are showing an interest in taking over, it is no doubt because they see the potential and can learn from last year's mistakes. But so can the SAR. If it were begun earlier to allow visitors to do Christmas shopping and had better co-operation between private sponsors and the Tourism Commission, there is every reason to expect that faults could be ironed out and things run smoothly second time round.
It should be possible to persuade potential backers that with the Tourism Commission providing the initiative and a reorganised Tourism Board having fresh faces and new vigour to sell Hong Kong at home and abroad, EuroChristmas is worth another try. One of the stated aims of the board is to persuade locals to spend more holidays at home. This was an event calculated to do just that. It also attracted its share of tourists, so it should have given a boost to business.
Local retailers are still having a lean time. So long as the tills ring, it scarcely matters who is spending. This year confidence is returning, with a marked pick-up in business travel. When Kai Tak airport closed, 16 per cent of passengers that came through were on transit. The figure at Chek Lap Kok now is just under 30 per cent. These passengers can be included in tourism statistics only with a rider. Of the 14 million expected visitors this year, those on transit will not spend a night in Hong Kong, nor will they be lured into staying, given the high local hotel rates.
Neighbouring countries are much less expensive, with rival attractions. Tourism bosses must cast off the idea that Hong Kong is a shoppers' paradise. The reverse is true, and alternatives which give visitors value for money must be found. The Disney theme park will make a difference in 2006. But we have to boost tourist numbers now by capitalising on what we already have. Conserving historical spots, organising cultural events and showing the world there is more to Hong Kong than a harbour front, the Peak and the Star Ferry, would be a good start.