Travel: Have Hong Kong to yourself. Well, almost

A year after the handover to China, Robin McKelvie says there has never been a better time to visit

HONEST, hard-working individualists obliterated by the iron fist of Communism? Or the flower of democracy stifled by bureaucrats? Or not exactly either? In fact, a year after the handover of Hong Kong to China, the only obvious change that most tourists will notice is the absence of British flags - and their replacement by the Bauhinia flower. This new symbol of Hong Kong (which is supposed to represent resilience and dynamism) has also bumped the Queen's head off coins and stamps. Oh, and the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club has dropped its regal moniker.

Apart from this (and from the worrying fact that there has been a disastrous drop in the number of visitors), what is more surprising is what has not changed. Colonial street names (Queen's Road and Nathan Road to name but two) remain unscathed, and the harbour is still known as Victoria Harbour. Every afternoon, the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel still tinkles to the chink of teacups among the trays of cucumber sandwiches. Even that preposterous colonial relic, the noonday gun, immortalised in Noel Coward's colonial anthem, still echos daily around Causeway Bay.

All this tranquillity may, however, change after 6 July. Because, barring last-minute hitches, Hong Kong will, as from that date, have a new international airport. The familiar sight of planes dodging skyscrapers to land at the antiquated Kai Tek will be no more, as the new multi-billion-dollar airport finally opens on a small island north of Lantau.

This massive civil engineering project - the biggest in Hong Kong's history - has in fact become a tourist attraction in itself, with a colossal new suspension bridge, Tsing Ma, and state-of-the-art high-speed trains which will soon be whisking passengers to and from the airport.

But is the new Chek Lap Kok Airport going to save Hong Kong from the disaster of dwindling tourism revenue? The political shenanigans surrounding the financing of the airport (it was supposed to be the British way of ensuring that the Hong Kong government's massive financial reserves would be swallowed up by the time of the handover) certainly made an interesting story, as did its construction (an entire mountain had to be shaved off an island to clear space for the runways). But whether the airport in use will hold the same fascination as it did in construction remains an open question.

Meanwhile, why exactly have tourists been staying away, causing hotel prices to sink to historically low levels? Ironically, the collapse in tourism that has afflicted Hong Kong is as much to do with the Asian economic crisis as with any anxieties generated by the handover. Amy Chan, Hong Kong Tourist Association's (HKTA) executive director, blamed reduced tourist numbers on "external factors over which Hong Kong has little control". Overall tourist numbers were down 11 per cent in 1997 to 10.4 million, after a decade of spectacular growth which was only punctuated by the dark years of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 (which did not trigger anything like so serious a drop).

Even events like the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens last March failed to stem the decline. In the past, it has been impossible to get tickets locally unless you had corporate contacts or rugby connections. This year, tickets were available on the day.

Dave Roberts, spokesman for the Hong Kong Rugby Union, insists that this was "only a temporary blip that will be corrected in 1999". But the tourist statistics still make painful reading, and initial assurances from the Hong Kong Tourist Association that the slump was temporary are now sounding very hollow.

The slump has lead to serious downsizing. The national flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, long one of Hong Kong's greatest success stories, was forced to axe 770 staff in January with a further 70 losses in March. Duty Free Shoppers, a massive privately owned network of tourist shops, has been forced to sack more than 200 staff.

In many shops now - even top department stores - it is considered acceptable to bargain for a better price, safe in the knowledge that the retailer is desperate for your custom. Airfares into Hong Kong have also been slashed to previously unthinkable levels, with short-break packages from the UK, including accommodation and transfers, showing up for as little as pounds 300.

Faced with this crisis, the HKTA has rushed out a new promotional campaign and brought forward plans to stage the 2001 World Expo in Hong Kong - though the HKTA are still waiting for the go-ahead from the new government. There are also moves to build a film theme park and to stage a number of as yet unspecified "international events".

The tourism campaign recognises that Hong Kong does not have the kind of attractions that world cities like London and Paris take for granted. The focus is on the bustling 24-hour mayhem of the Asian equivalent of Manhattan, the mixture of intense Asian chaos with a relatively organised social system. Hong Kong - thank God - is no longer officially the city where "east meets west", but an infectious multicultural buzz still vibrates through its streets.

Although not a great city of attractions, there is a lot more to cover than the average three-day scramble around the shops allows. Away from the urban chaos of Kowloon and the air-conditioned malls of Central, there is still the Peak Tram, the junks, the race-courses, the smelly markets, the smoky temples, the superb food, the beaches, and quiet countryside of the outlying islands. On the largest island, Lantau, away from the new aiport, you'll find attractions ranging from the world's largest outdoor Buddha to the traditional fishing village of Tai O.

One year on, Hong Kong has defied the doom-merchants who predicted a crippling clampdown once the Chinese resumed control. The economic miracle may have temporarily slowed, but the result is that there has never been a better or cheaper time to visit.

hong kong fact file

Getting there

Summer is low season in Hong Kong as far as hotels being cheap, but this doesn't necessarily apply to flights. Among the operators with periodic good deals, Qantas Holidays (0990 673464) offer five nights for pounds 469 any time between 1 July and 15 August. British Airways Holidays (01293 723171) is offering pounds 200 off all brochure prices to Hong Kong between 16 August and 24 October, if you book by 31 August.

Further information

Call the helpful Hong Kong Tourist Association on 0171-533 7100.

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