HONG KONG - Chinese tourists used to flock to Hong Kong before the pandemic, bringing empty suitcases to fill with everything from baby milk powder, to cosmetics and nonprescription drugs. Large tour groups would descend on the city, sparking complaints from some locals.
When Hong Kong reopened its borders earlier this year, many people were expecting an influx of tourists from mainland China once again, but the past three years have changed the traveling and shopping behavior of Chinese people.
Since reopening in January, Hong Kong has seen 20.5 million tourists as of the end of August, 80% of whom are from the mainland. That is a big jump from the little over 600,000 last year but is still just half the level seen in the first eight months of 2018, the year before the city was hit by widespread protests and two years before the coronavirus closed borders.
Mainland Chinese tourists look at sunset from a hill in Hong Kong, April 26, 2023.
Moreover, those who are coming are buying less, according to industry experts and shop owners.
"I used to be so busy that I couldn't keep up with the tourists," said Kenneth Fung, owner of Fung's Co., a shop in the popular beachside neighborhood of Stanley, where he sells handwritten colorful depictions of auspicious Chinese characters.
"I would sell 100 of these characters a day, but now I can only sell 10," he told VOA.
Some shops have had to close, unable to stay in business.
The slow rebound in Chinese outbound travel - one of the biggest sources of tourists for the world - is affecting other destinations around the world as well but it is especially noticeable and worrying in Hong Kong, where 80% of tourists have traditionally been from the mainland.
Before the pandemic, tourism was one of the main pillars of the economy, accounting for nearly 5% of its economic growth and more than 6% of its jobs.
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"Other than financial [services], tourism is really a main source of income for Hong Kong. It supplies a lot of jobs for everybody, especially those medium-education workers, so we need tourism in Hong Kong," said Paul Leung, chairman of the Hong Kong Inbound Travel Association, whose members include 100 travel agencies and tour bus companies.
Tourists interviewed told the VOA that mainlanders have grown used to shopping online during the pandemic, and Hong Kong no longer offered cheaper prices for luxury or other goods.
"Now we can buy whatever we want in the mainland," said Lin Ping from Beijing. "The price difference isn't great. ... The prices of some online direct sales are more discounted than that of Hong Kong, from what I've seen in the past couple of days."
Lin said she had done very little shopping and was simply enjoying the scenic attractions in the city, including on The Peak, a popular tourist destination that offers breathtaking views of Victoria Harbor.
Mainland China's consumers also have more options for duty-free shopping now, with such centers opening on the mainland, rivaling Hong Kong.
A bigger underlying reason may be China's slower economic growth, high youth unemployment and massive property bubble, which has seen housing values fall and made people hesitant to spend, economists said.
"They're not into showy stuff like LV bags like before, and they don't go to so many places outside of China anymore," said independent Shanghai-based economist Andy Xie. "The mentality that you consume to show off to other people, that's down sharply."
Anti-Chinese sentiment, which exists in Hong Kong as elsewhere, may also have discouraged some people from traveling outside the mainland, Xie said.
"If people don't like you, what's the point of going there? The world doesn't like you; Chinese people know that. You look at Europe and the United States, very few go there. The market has not caught on yet," Xie said.
FILE - Mainland Chinese tourists on a budget tour take photographs on a beach in Hong Kong, April 10, 2023.
Cecilia Wang, a recent college graduate from neighboring Guangdong province, said she was worried about visiting Hong Kong prior to this trip because the last time she was here, the protests made her feel unsafe. She had also heard about discrimination against mainlanders, including rude service by shopkeepers of those speaking Mandarin Chinese rather than the local Cantonese dialect.
"After coming here, I feel that Hong Kong people are quite warmhearted. I didn't feel any discrimination," Wang said.
In a statement issued to VOA, the Hong Kong Tourism Board, in charge of promoting inbound travel, said the outlook for tourism recovery in the second half of the year was stable and gradual.
"We are optimistic that the arrivals could reach 30 million for the full year 2023," it said.
That is about 50% of the pre-pandemic level. Industry officials believe it could take another year or longer before Hong Kong's tourism and retail sectors bounce back.
"The pace of recovery in the future will still be highly affected by varied factors, including air capacity, [the] global economy, and regional tourism competition, especially the exchange rate," the board said.
It also said, though, that the latest visitor survey it conducted shows "Hong Kong continues to captivate visitors with its shopping, culinary offerings, theme parks, and excellent connectivity."
The agency also said visitors are increasingly interested in more comprehensive and diverse experiences in Hong Kong, particularly its arts, culture, and outdoors, such as its museums, neighborhoods, photographic opportunities, and outlying islands' natural attractions.
To attract more tourists, the board began giving out 500,000 free plane tickets this year, as well as gifts to tourists, and has invited over 1,000 travel industry personnel, media, celebrities and influencers from mainland China and overseas to visit Hong Kong.
Some of the city's quarter of a million travel industry workers, however, have had to change careers as tourist arrivals fell from 65 million in 2018 to 56 million in 2019 during the protests, and then plunged to 3.5 million in 2020 when the pandemic hit. Arrivals dropped to just 91,398 in 2021, before starting to climb in 2022, but only to 604,564.
Leung said his travel agency and other businesses, including hotels, face difficulties finding workers.
"If you're going to have it back to 70 million, I think it will take quite some time," Leung said. "We need time to recover. No. 1 is the hotel, the manpower, the transportation."
But he added: "We really have confidence that Hong Kong will bounce back." Sitting in his empty shop, Fung, the artistic calligrapher, draws the Chinese word for "good fortune" in bright colors. He refuses to shut down his business, despite a lack of customers.
"I've been working here for nearly 40 years. At my age, I won't be able to switch to a different career," Fung said, before closing for the day.