Hong Kong protests: Why the city’s tourism industry is sure to bounce back

Countries are more resilient than we think, says Mark Jones

Mark Jones@markmywordsltd
Friday 25 October 2019 18:28

I was having lunch last week with a friend from a London design agency. She had a work trip planned and wanted my advice.

“The thing is, I only wear black,” she said. “Do you think that’ll be a problem?”

It’s pretty rare I’m asked my opinion on female fashion choices. But then this wasn’t a fashion question. My friend is heading to Hong Kong next month. Weekly, sometimes violent protests, have taken over the city since June. And how can you tell a protestor from an ordinary citizen or tourist? They wear black.

So she faces an interesting choice. A) Go ahead regardless. B) Change her look and learn to love fuchsia. Or C) Don’t go at all.

A) is the correct answer in this multiple choice. I’ve spoken to many friends in Hong Kong lately, and they are indeed carrying on regardless, and they aren’t more than normally concerned about their wardrobe choices. There are inconveniences. (If you are going, read this excellent piece first.) But the Hong Kong police have got enough on their plate without rounding up bemused foreign designers in their standard workwear.

Not only should you not cancel a trip to Hong Kong, you should make active plans to visit. November is the best month for weather: clear skies, balmy days. And because of the trouble, hotel prices are at a once-in-a-generation low.

Tourism and business is tanking in the territory. One of the things that gets Hongkongers’ collective goat is the sight of their newly minted country cousins from across the border wheeling their overstuffed suitcases from jewellery shops to cosmetics emporiums and back. Well, the collective goat can graze in peace. There were 2.8 million mainland tourists there in August. It sounds a lot, but that’s two million – two million! – fewer than the equivalent month in 2018.

It’s not the first time Hong Kong’s trade and tourism chiefs have faced a calamitous drop in numbers. Nothing yet rivals the Sars epidemic of the early 2000s. Someone at flagship airline Cathay Pacific told me that, at the height of Sars, regulations required them to offload a stubborn American from a Hong Kong to London flight because he refused to wear a face mask. That reduced the total passenger count by a third.

But it’s bad. Hong Kong’s best hotel, The Upper House, had to cancel its 10th anniversary party. The way things are looking, the 20th might be in doubt, too.

The Economist is worried about its annual conference there, as potential speakers look for reassurance about their safety.

This week that newspaper, possibly to cheer itself up, looked at the wider question of tourism and resilience: specifically, how well do destinations bounce back after natural and man-made disasters?

The bright-side answer is, "quite quickly". They quote a newish, sign-of-the-times body called the Global Travel & Tourism Resilience Council, which claims that only two events in the past 40 years have had a negative effect lasting more than two years: the aforementioned Sars and the 2008 financial crisis.

I had a closer look at the GT&RC to see which countries win the award for Best Bouncebackability. Answer: Thailand, or "Teflon Thailand", as they admiringly dub it, given that country’s singular ability to shrug off regular coups, tsunamis, epidemics and currency crises.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

We need a companion survey we’ll call The Scaredycat Index: those nationalities that are most likely to stay away from a place when something bad happens. The measures we have at present are purely anecdotal. But talking to various hotel, airline and tourism chiefs over the years, I’d say China tops the league. As well as the usual fears about terrible goings-on in barbarian lands, the Communist Party’s mixture of extreme control-freakery and pathological thin-skinnedness frequently leads to Official Disapproval of the Chinese people going somewhere. South Korea, Taiwan and of course Hong Kong get regular freezings-out of this kind.

The Japanese can be queasy travellers, too. A hotelier in Sweden told me that he set up a business with the aid of Japanese designers, catering very much for the Japanese market. Then 9/11 happened and they stopped coming. Luckily, The Ice Hotel discovered that other people liked going there, too.

American tourists are undoubtedly prone to collywobbles. After London had various, well, problems, I took to thanking Americans personally for their faith in us whenever they asked me for directions on the Strand.

And that’s good policy if you want to approach Thai levels of resilience. Never forget, tourists have a choice, and no one can blame them for choosing somewhere unvisited by death and disaster – even if that that means the whole world may end up spending its holidays in Singapore, Monaco and Eastbourne.

Meanwhile, canny and opportunistic travellers will instead follow the Simpson Doctrine. The BBC’s world affairs editor, John Simpson, once wrote that he likes to choose his holidays based on places that have just emerged from some big, bad and newsworthy event, especially a terrorism incident. His rationale: prices will be low, there’ll be no crowds and you’ll never be safer as the authorities flood the streets with police. Maybe even Extinction Rebellion could make an exception for places in the Bounceback Zone. They could devise a Moral Credits scale: we’ll let you fly just this once, as long as you’re supporting some beleaguered tourism industry. First stop? Hong Kong.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments