Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Lunar New Year was a busy period for Hong Kong’s tourism industry, when visitors from mainland China would take advantage of the long break to travel to the city.

People queuing at the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line border checkpoint. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Scenes of busy border control points have been absent for the past three years as Hong Kong remained largely isolated under strict anti-epidemic rules. With many of those restrictions recently relaxed, 2023 could mark a year of recovery for the city’s tourism industry, and on numerous occasions, Chief Executive John Lee has heralded Hong Kong’s return to the international stage.

Two weeks after quarantine-free travel was resumed between Hong Kong and mainland China, HKFP examines the current state of the city’s tourism sector with its pre-pandemic position.

Crippled pillar of economy

Since 2002, tourism has been identified as one of Hong Kong’s four “pillar industries,” which have served as the driving forces behind the city’s economic growth.

In 2018, official data showed visitor-related economic activities contributed to 3.6 per cent of the city’s gross domestic product (GDP), creating jobs for over 225,000 Hongkongers.

But that pillar has been almost entirely dismantled by the Covid-19 pandemic and three years of crippling restrictions on visitors.

In 2020, the year the coronavirus swept across the world and disrupted global traffic, the inbound tourism trade contributed just 0.2 per cent of Hong Kong’s GDP. The following year, it only accounted for 0.05 per cent of GDP.

After accounting for inflation, official data showed the economic input from inbound arrivals stood at HK$3.89 billion in third quarter of 2022, 95 per cent less than the HK$76.7 billion made during the first quarter of 2019.

The Executive Director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong Fanny Yeung told reporters on Thursday that the sector had lost an estimated 50 per cent of manpower when compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Data from the Census and Statistics Department painted an even grimmer picture, estimating that the number of people working in inbound tourism was only 3,100 in 2021 – less than 1.4 per cent of the 2018 amount.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, visitors have become rare sightings in Hong Kong.

While the number of overseas visitors has grown since authorities scrapped quarantine for international arrivals last September, it remains at a fraction of pre-Covid levels.

Last November, Hong Kong received 55,000 visitors from places other than mainland China, less than one-10th of the amount who came in November 2019, when the city was in the grip of protests and unrest.

Fall in mainland visitors

The number of mainland Chinese visitors, who have been the city’s largest source market since 1994, also plummeted over the past three years.

While quarantine-free travel between mainland China and Hong Kong resumed on January 8, and high-speed rail services restarted a week after, there are quotas in place to limit the number of cross-border travellers per day.

The number of mainland Chinese arrivals, however, has not yet come close to the initial daily quota of 50,000 through Hong Kong’s land ports in the first two weeks since normal travel resumed.

On Friday – two days ahead of the Lunar New Year – Hong Kong received 14,892 mainland visitors. That was three times the number that came on January 8, but 8.3 per cent of the daily average in January 2019.

About 70 per cent of Hong Kong arrivals since January 8 have been Hong Kong residents.

When HKFP asked Yeung of the Travel Industry Council about the lukewarm response among mainland Chinese visitors, Yeung said it was “something that they expect in the initial stage.”

She said that news of border reopening came in short notice before the Lunar New Year. “Mainland residents always plan their Chinese New Year holiday well in advance,” she said, adding that they would still have to apply for visas.

“We will estimate… maybe starting from mid-February, visitors from mainland [China] will be gradually increasing,” Yeung added.

Yeung said she did not think Hong Kong had lost its appeal to its main source of visitors, as attractions that had opened during Covid times would be a breath of fresh air for those who have not set foot in the city for three years.

Long road ahead

But at the same time, Yeung told HKFP she did not think her industry was in recovery yet. “Inbound visitors are less than one per cent of the pre-pandemic time,” she added.

The Travel Industry Council is currently fighting for government subsidies to revive the sector.

Its chairperson Gianna Hsu said in a Thursday press meeting that many of the 1,600 travel agencies in the city had shrunk to survive the tourist drought, with some left with just one desk.

The Executive Director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong Fanny Yeung. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

In order to resume operation, these companies need funds to rehire staff, rent proper offices, purchase business necessities and promote their services across the world – Yeung estimated that they would need a total of HK$100 million from the government.

“If we don’t have this subsidy, frankly, we don’t know if we can really revive or not,” she said.

Even with government help, Yeung said the rebound of Hong Kong’s travel industry will still take time.

“We would still expect a long road for tourism to recover, maybe towards the middle of next year? I think that is the timeframe we are looking for.”

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.