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Locked off because of Corona: Hong Kong is suffering from tourist losses

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In January of last year alone, almost seven million people visited Hong Kong. In the pandemic, hardly anyone comes to the once popular Asian financial metropolis, especially the tourists from mainland China are missing. This is bitter for employees in the travel industry.

Hong Kong has had a bus graveyard since this year. Hundreds of vehicles are gathering dust in a parking lot at the container port in the north of the metropolis, where they have been standing for ten months. That would have been unthinkable until recently, because the former British crown colony was the world’s leading travel destination last year: around 56 million people visited the city. Then Corona came and changed everything.

For those in the travel industry, staying away from their customers is bitter. Many are now thinking of giving up. “If you don’t see the light, you’re just going to stop to cut losses,” said Freddy Yip, president of the Hong Kong Association of Travel Agency Owners. The 70-year-old has been in the industry for almost half a century. Soon he too might be forced to give up. The government launched a far-reaching aid program in June and extended it in September, but it is due to expire at the end of this month. Too high costs, is the justification of the government, which has so far at least partially absorbed loss of wages for around two million employees in all industries.

The semi-autonomous global financial center ruled by China generates about five percent of its gross domestic product or about 18 billion dollars directly from tourism. That doesn’t even include the income from local shops and restaurants. Hong Kong’s tourism industry directly employs around 260,000 people, according to the government. They still had their hands full until last year. Visitors, most of them from mainland China, are drawn to the mix of cultures, harbor views, and world-class shopping.

Tourists from the People’s Republic typically spend more per day on baby food, cosmetics, and luxury goods than the average Hong Kong resident. They think Hong Kong has better quality standards. But at the beginning of February, Hong Kong closed itself off from the mainland because of the corona outbreak – which began in the city of Wuhan. Only a small number of business travelers were allowed in. According to official information, the number of visitors has plummeted every month since February by 96 to 99 percent compared to the respective period of the previous year.

Just a drop in the ocean

The city is trying to boost tourism at least a little. A limited number of people should soon be allowed to travel back and forth between Singapore and Hong Kong – after a negative Corona test. The agreement enables travelers to forego quarantine. However, the test run is limited to one flight per day with a maximum of 200 passengers per direction – a drop in the bucket for a city that set a monthly record in January 2019 with 6.8 million visitors.

This step is therefore not enough for tour guide Mimi Cheung. “The government should open the border to the mainland – under safe conditions, of course. That would bring some hope,” says Cheung, who has found a temporary job as a night watchman to look after her parents and two children.

The reopening of the border with the mainland is also a priority for Hong Kong’s Prime Minister Carrie Lam. But the Chinese authorities have not yet shown any signs that they are ready to do so. They don’t want to consider doing this until the virus cases in Hong Kong drops to zero. The city government is trying to stimulate local tourism. Free tours are offered for small groups.

Hardly any buffer

Dozens of travel agencies have now instructed their employees to take unpaid vacation from December. They can no longer afford to pay salaries or rent. Many tour operators no longer have a buffer to weather the crisis. Because already in the second half of 2019 the business subsided. Anti-government street protests prevented many tourists from visiting Hong Kong.

The city’s conference and congress business is also in crisis. It is likely to suffer a 90 percent drop in sales to 50 billion Hong Kong dollars this year, said Stuart Bailey, chairman of the Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Industry Association. The sector, which employs around 80,000 people, had to cancel most of this year’s events. “People fear it will take at least 18 months to two years to get back to 2019 levels.” The vehicles in the bus cemetery in northern Hong Kong are likely to collect a lot of dust before they can be used again and brought to life.

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