Hong Kong’s tourism industry has struggled to secure more manpower and coaches ahead of the proposed full reopening of mainland China’s border next month and needs government subsidies to recover from nearly three years of Covid-19 travel restrictions, industry leaders say .
Tse Kam-ting, founding president of the Hong Kong Association of Inbound Travel Agents, said on Monday that before the outbreak, his own business mainly focused on travel for tourists from Southeast Asia and had more than 100 employees.
He added that the travel agency now employs fewer than 10 people, including several coach drivers.
“I am now asking my (former) employees to return to work. January and February are still low seasons for tourists from Southeast Asia, but I hope things will get better in March,” he said.
On Saturday, Chief Executive Lee Ka-chao said Beijing had approved a plan to reopen the shared border and hoped to complete the process by mid-January after meeting with the country’s leaders on his first foreign trip.
But Xie urged the government to roll out relief measures starting next month to help support the pandemic-hit tourism industry and boost its productivity.
“No bank will lend money to travel agencies now. But we need funds to hire staff, buy laptops and other equipment, and at least HK$80,000 to HK$100,000 ($10,247 to $12,809) to repair each tour vehicle,” he said.
“The cost of restarting our business is very high and we cannot wait for the government’s next budget in February.”
According to data from the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau, there were 80,524 tourists visiting Hong Kong in October, including 47,607 mainland tourists and 14,368 Southeast Asian tourists. This figure represents only 1.6% of the monthly average of 5.4 million in 2018.
In recent years, due to social unrest and the new coronavirus pandemic in 2019, the number of tourists arriving in Hong Kong has declined. In 2018, the city saw about 65.1 million tourist arrivals, before dropping to 55.9 million the following year.
The total number of passengers dropped from 3.6 million in 2020 to 91,398 last year due to the pandemic.
But the city saw more than 443,000 arrivals between January and November this year, a figure that comes amid a gradual relaxation of the city’s strict immigration regime.
Ahead of the possible relaxation of cross-border travel restrictions next month, Legislative Councilor Yiu Pak-leung, who represents the travel industry, called on authorities to set a clearer timetable for the policy so airlines, coach operators and travel agencies have enough time to prepare.
Hong Kong tourism industry calls for looser coronavirus rules on group tours
“The tourism industry is also facing a shortage of manpower and funds, and our coaches also need time for repairs and maintenance,” he said. “I hope the government will give us enough time to prepare and give us subsidies.”
Leung Yiu-lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Inbound Tourism Association, said the manpower shortage in the tourism industry can only be resolved if the government can assure tourism workers that the opening is a permanent measure.
“We really can’t ask staff to come back with a pay increase. The government needs to convince them that the policy won’t be rolled back in two months,” he said.
Leung added that he hoped Hong Kong would remove testing requirements for overseas visitors to help encourage more Southeast Asian tourists to Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland.
“People from places like Indonesia not only want to have fun in Hong Kong, they also like mainland cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen,” he said.
Under the current immigration system, inbound passengers must undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at the airport, followed by a second test on the third day of arrival in the city and a five-day rapid antigen test (RAT). Anyone who tests positive must be quarantined.
“But few destinations in the region require passengers to take PCR tests and RAT. This discourages people from coming to Hong Kong and causes trouble and inconvenience for those who arrive in Hong Kong,” he said.
Industry leaders also said they wanted more transport services between Hong Kong and Macau to resume soon, allowing more travelers to travel to both cities.
At present, the high-speed ferry service between the two places has been suspended, but passengers can still travel to the two places by bus via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge.
The number of shuttle buses from Hong Kong to Macau via the bridge has been increased to 10, and the number of return trips has been increased to 9.