Special Report on Hong Kong: A destination that mixes business with pleasure: Tourism has made this city the most popular in Asia, despite uncertainty about its future. Raymond Whitaker reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FIRST impressions of Hong Kong - the hair-raising descent into Kai Tak airport, followed by a taxi ride to the Central district which can resemble a Grand Prix computer game - may convince the visitor that this is a place dedicated to the frenetic pursuit of money rather than leisure.

Yet fewer than a quarter of Hong Kong's 7 million visitors last year were on business. The city is the most popular travel destination in Asia, and the Hong Kong Tourist Association claims that the much-publicised hostilities between China and the new Governor, Chris Patten, have helped, rather than hindered, its work.

The cynical might see the 16 per cent increase in arrivals in 1992 as evidence of a desire to experience Hong Kong before China arrives to spoil the party - some luxury hotels are already fully booked for 30 June 1997, the date of the handover - but a spokesman said that 'there is every reason to assume' that the territory would hold its leading place 'beyond 1997 into the next century'.

Hong Kong has every facility for the business visitor, but shopping and eating are the traditional attractions for tourists, with the paths to a thousand restaurants, discount factory outlets and street markets well-trodden. It has to be admitted that the craze for tearing down and rebuilding has left little history intact, but in compensation has left one of the most breathtaking cityscapes in the world, thanks to architects like I M Pei and Sir Norman Foster being commissioned to outdo each other. The Peak tram and the Star Ferry make these marvels available to even the busiest of visitors for a dollar or two.

With a little more time and effort, it is possible to find corners of tranquillity even in this restless enclave, on the south side of Hong Kong island, in the New Territories or on the outlying islands. British visitors, according to the statistics, show greater interest than others in exploring local culture, and take more tours out of the city. As a result they are more likely to discover a truth that eludes some of those who stick to the businessmen's haunts - Hong Kong, while outwardly cosmopolitan, remains inextricably part of China.

Tourism contributed 6.5 per cent of Hong Kong's gross domestic product in 1992, and is the colony's third- highest earner of foreign exchange. The main brake on further expansion is congestion at Kai Tak. The tourist authority yearns for the day when it is replaced by the new airport at Chek Lap Kok, which could quadruple annual arrivals - it has been designed with the future 1,000-passenger 'super-jumbo' aircraft in mind. Chek Lap Kok is not due to come into operation until 1997 at the earliest and may well be delayed further by the political deadlock over Hong Kong's future.

For the moment the emphasis has to be on persuading the existing number of visitors to stay longer. The average length of stay in 1991 - the latest year for which figures are available - was 3.43 nights. British visitors, of whom there were a record 314,000 in 1992, stayed longer: 4.8 nights. But the Tourist Association found that most tourists wished they had had more time - asked how long a stay they would recommend, the most common answer was one week.

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