Pay up for the great end-of-an-era show

Attempts to cash in on ceremony have backfired; Hong Kong handover
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The Independent Online
Some in Hong Kong see the night of 30 June as the historic moment of ending British rule and returning Hong Kong to the motherland. Others see it as marking the climax of the great Hong Kong rip-off.

Hotels, airlines, restaurants, trinket sellers and anyone else who can get in on the act have spent the past months calculating how to squeeze every penny out of the event. Now, however, many of them have been hoisted by their own petard - and priced themselves out of the market.

With just two weeks to go, almost 20 per cent of the colony's hotel rooms remain vacant for the handover period. Ordinary tourists have balked at demands for hefty deposits and minimum stay requirements which require bookings for five days regardless of the period of actual stay.

Official visitors, accounting for the booking of some 1,000 rooms, and journalists, taking up another 4,000 or so, have to be in Hong Kong at this time, but ordinary tourists do not. They are shunning perfectly ordinary hotels, located well away from the handover ceremonies, who are trying to sell them packages costing anything from pounds 600 to pounds 2,000.

Visitors paying their own way are also balking at demands from airlines for immediate full payment of tickets and, as in the case of Virgin, levying surcharges on top of the suspension of discounted fares. As a result, most airlines have had to cancel plans for additional flights because demand has faded.

However, some of Hong Kong's finest hotels and restaurants are laughing all the way to the bank. Five-star hotels, with a view of the harbour, are booked solid at prices starting from around pounds 350 per night.

Some 4,000 people are expected to attend a banquet on 2 July, paying more than pounds 650 per head for a five-course meal with 60-year-old whisky. The principal reason for coughing up this extraordinary amount is that Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's new Chief Executive, and a number of prominent Chinese officials, will be there. The diners are keen to be seen backing an event which the Chinese themselves are supporting.

The business of selling handover souvenirs is also showing signs of overreaching itself. Enterprising Americans are marketing canned colonial air at more than pounds 4 per can. Cheap plastic watches, with the flags of Britain and China on their faces are selling for pounds 10; the same watches can be found for a third of that price in street markets.

Ambitious events organisers are vying with each other to host mammoth parties at mammoth prices. The Unity handover party, billed as "the biggest, most amazing discotheque Asia has ever seen", is asking almost pounds 50 for entry to an exhibition centre where stars such as Boy George and Pete Tong will be spinning the CDs, and Grace Jones will make a guest appearance.

An even more ambitious concert (tickets: pounds 50 upwards) is aiming to fill Hong Kong's main racecourse with a bunch of stars including Lisa Stansfield and Wet Wet Wet.

The problem for the organisers is that advance bookings have been modest. The private sector is vying with well-funded public events, such as fireworks displays, concerts and a host of other entertainments.

Faced with this enormous choice, and presented with the opportunity of an unprecedented five-day public holiday, many Hong Kong people have decided to go abroad.

The government sponsored tourist association is getting worried about the high-price image the handover period is engendering. It is appealing to hoteliers to be more modest in their demands and planning a cacophony of post-handover events to try and persuade visitors that Hong Kong is something more than a centre for the world's most sophisticated rip-off artists.

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