EARLIER THIS week Queens Road, a fancy thoroughfare in central Hong Kong, thronged just as it always has—just not with sightseers. Instead, squeezed onto the pavements were young Hong Kongers, many wearing masks and chanting slogans, heading in their tens of thousands towards the latest pro-democracy demonstration in nearby Chater Garden.
The protests have nobbled Hong Kong’s tourism industry. Visitor numbers for August were the most dismal for 16 years. A paltry 3.6m foreigners arrived, down from 5.9m during the same month last year. Tourism from mainland China, easily Hong Kong’s most important market, has been particularly badly hit. As Chinese have been dissuaded from crossing the border—in part because the message from Beijing has been that the protests have been about unpatriotic separatism, not a desire for representation—their numbers fell in August to 2.8m, down from 4.8m in the same month last year.Get our daily newsletter
Upgrade your inbox and get our Daily Dispatch and Editor’s Picks.
Meanwhile, SP, a ratings agency, reports that revenues at many hotels may have halved, as the conference trade collapses. That is understandable. The protests are dragging on into a fifth month. They are showing little sign of abating and plenty of signs of becoming more violent, as both police and marchers up the ante. (The Economist’s conference business in Hong Kong has had trouble recruiting speakers and guaranteeing security.) Given that the airport and the transport system have been regular targets, if a firm were planning an event in Asia, why not plump for Singapore instead, just to be on the safe side? Indeed, as Hong Kong’s tourism figures have plummeted, so Singapore’s have risen.
The big question for Hong Kong’s tourism industry will be whether, once normality returns, the damage proves long-lasting. There is cause for optimism. Tourism is among the most resilient industries there is. According to a report produced this September by the Global Travel Tourism Resilience Council, a research outfit, over the past 40 years only two events have depressed tourism for more than a couple of years: the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis. Usually, even after natural disasters, terrorist atrocities or political upheaval, tourists return after three to six months.
In 2016 France, for example, was subject to a year of horrific terror attacks, including murderous rampages in Paris and Nice that killed hundr. The number of people visiting the world’s most popular tourist destination duly fell, as the idea that the country was in the throes of a jihadist epidemic spread around the world. Such chatter was short-lived. In 2017 more visitors than ever arrived. The effects on tourism of the tsunami that devastated South-East Asia on Boxing Day 2014 were equally quickly overcome. While the number of people visiting Thailand, for example, fell in 2015—no surprise given that much of its tourist infrastructure had been washed away with the waves—by 2016 the country was back on track. Many hardy holidaymakers simply swapped affected bits of the country for unaffected ones. And the last time Hong Kong’s tourism figures fell so low? The SARS outbreak of 2003, from which there was also no long-lasting effect.
There is, though, one reason to worry that Hong Kong in 2019 might be an exception to the resilience rule. In all of the above cases, authorities have gone out of their way to fix the problem and to prove to the world that it would welcome visitors back with open arms.
But mainlanders are staying away not just because of what they are being told by Beijing. They are also worried that they will encounter hostility. That belief may be justified. Some Mandarin-speaking mainlanders have been attacked by Cantonese-speaking locals. And many Hong Kongers—whisper it—think that one happy side-effect of the protests has been the dearth of mainland sightseers clogging the place up. For a country to recover from a tourism slump, it must truly want to.