HONG KONG — There’s little doubt who has the spending power in this special administrative region of China.
A typical visit to a store here will clearly demonstrate, as shop assistants switch effortlessly among Cantonese, the dialect of Hong Kong and southern China; Mandarin (also known as Putonghua), the language of China, and English.
“As a shopper, you can tell [Mainland Chinese] are getting very important as all the salespeople speak to me in Putonghua already,” said Anne Ling, Deutsche Bank regional sector head of consumer and media research for Asia. “Also you will see PRC (People’s Republic of China) tourists paying cash in the designer label stores.”
That’s why those same shop assistants seem to dote on the Mainland clients, particularly if they’re carrying a briefcase that just might be holding nothing but 100 yuan banknotes.
Those yuan banknotes carry a lot of clout here; there were 13.6 million Mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong in 2006. Their numbers jumped 8.4 percent over the previous year and accounted for 56 percent of visitors last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
In 2005, general tourist spending made up 36 percent of total retail sales, Ling said. The average overnight visitor spent 4,554 Hong Kong dollars, or $584, 53 percent of which went toward shopping, followed by hotel bills, at 22 percent, according to the tourism board.
People from the Mainland were not always treated well here.
The thinking went that Hong Kong was sophisticated and people from the Mainland were so-called country bumpkins who didn’t know how to dress, had bad haircuts and manners and had no sense of fashion. It was even common to be advised to avoid speaking Mandarin in Hong Kong because it was looked down upon.
While Mainland Chinese are now embraced for the most part, there are still some growing pains. Mainland tourists were being forced to shop by tour guides who would then get commissions from the shops.
The issue of forced shopping in Hong Kong led the Travel Industry Council to enact a rule that all travel agents are required to provide tour members with a detailed itinerary that specifies hotel accommodations and day-to-day activities, including which shops the tour is set to visit. In addition, tourists must receive a written pledge that they will not be forced to shop.
This initiative was prompted by the actions of a guide who abandoned a tour group from Qinghai province because they refused to shop. The Travel Industry Council suspended the tour guide’s pass for three months and the related travel agent for the group had its membership suspended for one month and was fined 100,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $12,821.
“The Tourist Guide Deliberation Committee was of the view that although the tourist guide admitted his own mistake, this incident not only affected the interests of the tour group, but also damaged the reputation of Hong Kong and Hong Kong tourism and gravely affected the industry,” said Joseph Tung, executive director of the TIC.
In 2006, there were 19 confirmed cases of forced shopping and 33 complaints were sent to the TIC, compared with 12 the previous year.
It’s difficult to know how many people join so-called zero-fee tours where guides earn money through commissions, said Eliza Cheng, senior executive for corporate communications and public relations for the Hong Kong Tourism Board. However, the Tourism Board late last year introduced the “Honest and Quality Tour to Hong Kong” initiative so visitors pay “reasonable” costs and can sightsee and shop at their leisure, she added.
The feeling is that it’s important that Hong Kong protect its image as a tourism and shopping destination and that it can’t afford the negative publicity from disgruntled visitors when they return home.
It isn’t just Hong Kong that’s working to boost visitor numbers. China implemented an Individual Visitor Scheme in 2003 to help boost retail spending in the territory, Ling said.
Hong Kong and China do have a one-country, two-systems policy, but the one-country idea doesn’t apply to borders, which are tightly monitored on both sides.
In July 2003, the Individual Visitor Scheme was implemented to allow those living in coastal areas of China to apply for visitor visas to Hong Kong. The scheme has been expanded to include 49 cities, the most recent the five provincial capitals of Shijiazhuang (Hebei), Zhengzhou (Henan), Changchun (Jilin), Hefei (Anhui) and Wuhan (Hubei), in January. While tourists don’t need to be part of a registered tour group, they still need to qualify for a Hong Kong visa.
Mainland visitors are “very important to Hong Kong’s economy….They are really crucial to Hong Kong,” Cheng said. “We can’t afford to miss this opportunity.”