Hong Kong – Tourism in Transition

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25 years ago, the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong over to China after the city had been a British Crown Colony for 155 years. A lot has changed in the metropolis since then – including tourism.

The skyline of Hong Kong – around 7.5 million people live here

Many Hong Kong residents may not feel like celebrating at all when China is being remembered these days to mark the 25th anniversary of the city's return. On the one hand, this is due to the Chinese government's increasing efforts over the years to expand its influence in Hong Kong and to suppress the democracy movement. On the other hand, the corona pandemic hit the city hard and brought one of the pillars of the economy, tourism, to a virtual standstill.

Devastating consequences of the Zero Covid strategy

“Until 2019, Hong Kong was one of the most visited cities in the world,” says Wolfgang Ehmann, delegate at the German Chamber of Commerce Abroad in Hong Kong. However, due to the strict travel restrictions, some of which are still in place, the sector then collapsed completely. In the whole of 2021, the official number of visitor arrivals was just 91,000, according to Ehmann. For comparison: in 2019 it was almost 56 million. “This shows how devastating the effects of the Zero Covid strategy have been and are on tourism in Hong Kong.”

Strict corona rules continue to apply in Hong Kong, such as the obligation to wear masks in public spaces

The many closed shutters in the streets and the closed shops and restaurants in the shopping centers show how badly the economy has been hit by the lack of travelers . According to official figures, tourism contributes around five percent to the city's gross domestic product. There are more than 300 hotels and around 260,000 people are directly employed in the sector.

76 percent of the tourists are from mainland China

This has changed significantly over the past decades. Jianli Chen, owner of the Hamburg-based company China Hansa Travel, who has been organizing trips to his home country and accompanying groups of holidaymakers for many years, witnessed this change. “Shopping tourism is very important in Hong Kong today,” he says. “Chinese tourists from the mainland now play a much larger role than international tourism.” This is also confirmed by the official figures. In 2017, 76 percent of all visitors were from mainland China. Expensive watches, fancy bags, branded goods of all kinds – these are what affluent mainland Chinese seek in Hong Kong, explains Chen.

Hong Kong is a popular shopping destination among Mainland Chinese

The fact that such shopping trips – often just day trips – are possible is a result of the city being returned to China. Since 2003, the Chinese government has issued visas that allow individual travel to Hong Kong. Since then, nearly 300 million Chinese have used it. Hans-Wilm Schütte, sinologist and author of several travel guides about China and Hong Kong, remembers the times when that was not yet possible. “Tourists in Hong Kong used to be Americans, Japanese, occasionally a few Europeans,” he says. “The fact that so many mainland Chinese are coming today also has something to do with joining the People's Republic.”

After many years of back and forth, this was officially completed on July 1, 1997. After the so-called Opium War in 1841, Hong Kong fell to the United Kingdom and subsequently developed into an important military base and trading center. After the Second World War, during which Japanese forces occupied the city, Hong Kong began to develop into an economic metropolis, also thanks to Chinese entrepreneurs who had fled Mao's red brigades.

The whole city is adorned with flags of Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China these days. Left-hand traffic is a remnant of former British rule

Critics warn of eroding autonomy

In the 1970s, China put increasing pressure on Great Britain to cede the crown colony. It was finally agreed that Hong Kong should be a so-called special administrative region for 50 years. Under the motto “One country, two systems”, the citizens of Hong Kong were guaranteed extensive freedoms and rights. But Hong Kong's autonomy is gradually being eroded, critics have been warning for a long time. In 2020, for example, a controversial “security law” came into force, with which the Chinese government reacted to mass protests for more democracy in the city and which has since repeatedly served as the basis for the arrests of regime critics.

Dozens of dissidents gathered in London on June 12 to demonstrate for more democracy in Hong Kong. Some even call for independence from China

As early as 2014, tens of thousands took to the streets as part of the so-called “umbrella protests” to demand more democracy. Although the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, Jianli Chen is convinced that they still have an impact on international tourism. Many tour operators would simply remove Hong Kong from their program if there were unrest there again. “They say to themselves: In that case we can't travel.”

China's President Xi Jinping shows presence

And so the group of more than 50 participants that he accompanied to Hong Kong some time ago, before the corona pandemic, was a big exception. “Hongkong tourism from Europe has decreased a lot,” he says. In the 1990s, he was on average three times a year as a tour guide in Hong Kong. That was because the city was the gateway to China for western travelers for a long time. “The classic route for China tours started and ended in Hong Kong,” says Chen. However, this gradually changed as China opened up.

Dozens of events mark the 25th anniversary the return of Hong Kong to China is planned

There is still no sign of tourism recovering from the current crisis. Hong Kong travelers are also subject to strict corona requirements in the form of proof of vaccination, several tests and 14-day quarantine in the hotel. However, the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the return of the city are likely to be pompous. China's President Xi Jinping will also be present and take part in several official events.