As far as the Hong Kong tourism industry is concerned, this year's numbers are all looking good and every graph measuring trends is heading in the right direction. The monthly total of inbound tourists is nearing record levels and, with the economy looking brighter, Hong Kong residents are once again making overseas holiday plans rather than staying at home and saving for a rainy day.
"The number of visitor arrivals is expected to increase by 20 percent this year to around 18 million," says Joseph Tung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong (TIC). "In addition to the steady growth of mainland visitors stimulated by the extension of the Individual Visit Scheme, there are also signs of recovery in the long-haul markets," he notes. Indeed, Hong Kong Tourism Board figures show that March arrivals from Europe and Australia were ahead of pre-SARS levels while those from the Americas and Southeast Asia were nearing full recovery.
Mainland China is considered the key driver of growth for inbound tourism. Of the 4.9 million visitors recorded in the first quarter of 2004, almost 60 percent were from the mainland and the year-on-year increase of 37 percent for this market far exceeds the industry average of 14 percent.
Extending the Individual Visit Scheme to all of Guangdong province from 1 May and to nine more cities in Fujian, Jiangsu and Zhejiang as from 1 July will further increase the momentum. However, those arriving from Guangdong and Fujian will not necessarily benefit travel agencies as much as hoped. "These visitors usually have relatives in Hong Kong and require limited services from agencies and hotels except in arranging local tours," notes Mr Tung.
The projections for outbound tourism are also positive. Industry forecasts indicate a 10 percent increase in tourist departures this year and 5 percent growth in related revenues. "These figures imply lower prices for package tours," explains Mr Tung. "However, the economic revival and greater convenience with, for example, visa exemptions for SAR passport holders going to Japan, will encourage more outbound trips." Mr Tung points out there has been strong growth for all markets except the US, which is still affected by the threat of terrorism and for which the process of applying for tourist visas has become more stringent.
Hong Kong, as a free port, has long been known as an international shopper's paradise and this is a major attraction for mainland visitors. "They are keen to buy the high-quality products which are available in Hong Kong at reasonable prices," says Mr Tung. Cosmetics, audio and telecom products, video equipment and computers are the most popular items while fashion and jewellery are not far behind.
"The retail industry will gain the most from the influx of mainland tourists," says Mr Tung. "They spend comparatively more of their budgets on shopping and less in restaurants unlike international tourists who tend to spend more on gourmet food."
Quality assurance is essential in gaining the trust and confidence of visitors and sustaining tourist growth. The TIC's "100% refund guarantee scheme" offers purchase protection for tourists. They are entitled to a full refund, from participating shops, if purchases prove unsatisfactory and are returned within 14 days.
Customer-oriented services are also crucial. With the advent of the Individual Visit Scheme, travel agencies must provide value-added services which are better than ever. "Otherwise, visitors will not join tours," says Mr Tung. "Travel agencies should arrange shopping with reliable merchants who provide quality products at attractive prices. They should also offer a range of sightseeing itineraries to cater for people with different backgrounds and interests."
In order to avoid the possible perception that Hong Kong, as a small city, may have a limited number of attractions for visitors, Mr Tung recommends further integration with the Pearl River Delta for the development of tourism on a regional basis.
Thousand of new employees will be needed to support the current growth. Recruitment is mainly for frontline positions with travel agencies, retailers and hotels. "High academic qualifications are not necessarily required," says Mr Tung, "but a good attitude towards service certainly is."
Language skills are increasingly important and proficiency in Putonghua is now expected of frontline employees in tourism. "There is still room for improvement in this area particularly since Putonghua is the common language spoken by all mainland visitors and they expect fluency in Hong Kong," Mr Tung says.
Requirements for greater overall professionalism in the sector are now being emphasised. For example, a new accreditation system will come into effect this July and will require all tourist guides taking care of inbound visitors to obtain a tourist guide pass from TIC. A similar scheme for guides leading outbound tourist groups was implemented in 1999. Under this, all outbound tour escorts are required to sit a qualifying examination and obtain the relevant certificate. Such measures definitely do much to ensure the high service levels of tourist agencies and promote a positive image of the whole tourist sector in Hong Kong.