SCMP Saturday, August 25, 2001

Repackaging Hong Kong

First the city got its new dragon symbol. Now it has a new objective: "Throw open the floodgates and let mainlanders pour in."
That is not a sentiment usually heard in the SAR, but visitors from other parts of China make up 29 per cent of the 13 million-plus who come here every year, and it is a market with immense potential. Before it can be fully exploited - and exploited is probably an unfortunate word to use in the week that mainland tour operators complained about clients being ripped off by shopkeepers - Hong Kong has to reinvent and repackage itself.
There is not much point in pressing to have the visa system scrapped if word spreads across the border that this is a city where strangers have to be on their guard against cheats. However, if Hong Kong did not have a lot to recommend it, tourists would not flock here in such numbers. It has many unique attractions - more than it usually tells the world about - but for a lot of travellers, the really fascinating feature of any holiday is meeting the people of other lands. That is why Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa made a point of stressing that every resident should be an ambassador for the city, when he announced that $18 billion had been earmarked for tourism development over the next five years. A smile is all it takes to make strangers feel at home. Helping them with directions and serving them with courtesy and good humour will invite them to return, and make them willing to recommend the SAR to friends and relatives.
That is the key to securing a place as the premier tourist destination in Asia. Last year, the industry brought in $61.5 billion, and even in a global downturn, tourist spending has increased seven per cent over this time last year. It makes sense for the Government to step up efforts to promote the city, when tourism is one of the few growth areas in the present economic climate. And by beginning at home, it will make the population aware of how much their prosperity depends on keeping the visitors pouring in.
Although there is nothing very new about the proposals outlined at yesterday's exhibition, they do change the focus from the worn-out cliche of shopping to a wider perspective of making more of what is already there. Turning waterfront areas into places of entertainment and al fresco dining, with perhaps a fisherman's wharf is a good idea. Eating outside tends to be a prohibited pastime in Hong Kong, with inspectors patrolling the streets to ensure that diners remain firmly shut in.
But some developments come at a cost. For all the hope pinned on Disneyland, it probably spells the end of rural Lantau. The massive reclamation work, extending far out beyond the bay, and the network of access roads will give it a metropolitan feeling. But if it brings in seven million tourists, perhaps the loss of another wilderness must be judged worthwhile.