Is cultural tourism one of the solutions for Hong Kong’s tourism industry?

Hong Kong, a beautiful city branded as a shopping and culinary paradise, has suffered a downturn in the number of tourists visiting it in recent years. As a beneficiary of the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS), Hong Kong relied too much on a single type and source of tourist, and made no progress in its planning or policy-making for its tourism industry. The consequences finally came to a head when the tightening of the IVS and the more positive economic outlook for Chinese tourists in general led them to explore remoter and better destinations than Hong Kong. We now face a situation where catering for a single market no longer represents a viable option, and it is now time to assess whether Hong Kong has other ways to attract tourists.

Historic resources
Hong Kong certainly has fruitful historic resources, and it has more than enough to support its development as a cultural tourist destination. In terms of both its tangible and intangible heritage, this city surprisingly contains a number of legacies left by many countries and peoples in addition to the British who ruled over it as a colony.

The very first example is Portuguese. Many Portuguese moved to Hong Kong during the mid to late 1800s due to the then unstable political situation in Macau. Since then they have contributed a great deal to promoting Hong Kong’s development through the funding of the construction of churches and schools such as the Rosary Church, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph’s College.

What else can be added to this? The renowned Star Ferry, which was founded by a Parsee cook, and the Sun Yatsen revolution, which was based in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Cemetery records and reveals the history that the city has been through with its graves of wanderers from the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, Nazi Germany and even the Jewish diaspora. On Hong Kong Island, hiking trails on a former battlefield have seen the establishment of monuments commemorating Canadian soldiers who bravely resisted their opponents during WWII. All of this is just the tip of an iceberg revealing Hong Kong’s multicultural history.

Hong Kong is, however, lacking comprehensive policies and plans to conserve its heritage. Since most of our textbooks either never taught local history, or at best touched on it lightly, our education system has almost discouraged our children from learning more about our past, and in doing so has only encouraged the development of a culturally homogeneous image for our city.

Government expanding cultural resources

The government has done some work expanding our cultural resources over the years, albeit on an on-and-off basis, and this has included the establishment of heritage trails throughout Hong Kong. Until now, however, their number is still inadequate and most importantly, the government still lacks a clear strategy to develop cultural tourism.

In 2016, the Policy Address talked about the fact that relying on shopping alone will not enhance a tourist’s experience, and that Hong Kong’s culinary culture should be promoted more. This was somewhat disappointing, however, since the government failed to provide any new suggestions for boosting Hong Kong’s tourism, and all their plans could in fact be seen essentially as just putting old wine into new bottles. Hong Kong has so much more to offer than just food. While culinary culture should still be promoted, it should not be the only focus for tourism policy, and instead we should get up to speed exploring our other cultural resources.

The Policy Address also provided a suggestion to feature light effects, projections and light installations on a number of selected buildings in the Central and Western District to promote Hong Kong’s history and culture. The suggestion will finally come to fruition in November 2017, and shall be presented with a festival lasting for 3 days. In Cantonese we have a saying, namely “Lei Tei”, meaning that such ideas or actions are seriously impractical and are little more than pie in the sky. A number of residents have already described these actions taken by the government as extraordinarily “Lei Tei”. Not only is such a festival unsustainable, it is also doubtful whether it can truly inform tourists more about the city’s heritage.

Even as late as 2017, the Policy Address lacked any culturally related tourism policies, and only praising words were delivered about holding international events such as the Formula E motor race and the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival. While increasing international status by holding large-scale events, the government should also provide more ideas to expand its tourism resources instead of simply resting on its laurels.

Conservation policy
Conservation of heritage sites is important for allowing cultural tourism to develop. However, the grading system in Hong Kong only applies to tangible, and not intangible, heritage. What’s more, amongst the tangibles, only those which are listed as monuments are protected from demolition or alteration by law. According to the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, any violation of the above is punishable by fines of HK$ 100,000 and imprisonment for a year. However, buildings with grades below those of listed monuments, including Grade I, Grade II and Grade III historic buildings, are not protected by law. These precious buildings are only graded with a title, meaning that any alteration of or interference with them will entail absolutely no legal consequences. Given this, what do you think about the power of deterrence when it comes to protecting our historic structures?

Hong Kong as a property-led society

As a property-led society, every heritage site in Hong Kong is looked on mainly as a tool to suit economic purposes, with their long-term effects as regards Hong Kong as a whole usually being ignored. Sustainability will only be achieved if tourists’ interests are kept piqued by impressing them with the characters of the city. By exposing them to its ample historical resources and its multi-cultural background, tourists will be impressed and driven to come again. While some may come for a pilgrimage, others will be surprised that such ancient structures can exist in such a modern city. It seems, however, that the city authorities have not grasped the fact that well-managed conservation can attract more tourists and therefore boost the city’s international image.

Here is an example of failed heritage conservation from Heritage 1881, namely the former Marine Police Headquarters, which was built in 1884, and which now belongs to Mr. Li Ka-shing. This heritage site was “revitalised” as a luxury shopping centre without any traces of its past character. This shopping center attracts mainly Chinese tourists on shopping visits and epitomizes the ridiculousness of our so-called heritage conservation in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, there have been some rare examples of successful conservation.

In 2007 the Development Bureau successfully implemented the conservation of the King Yin Lei mansion by engaging in a land exchange. The 1937-built heritage site now retains its original appearance, and now that it has been restored, it is now open to the public several times a year. Coincidently, the then Secretary for Development was our current Chief Executive Carrie Lam. It is hoped that Carrie Lam will continue the conservation concept, also stepping up the efforts to promote cultural tourism.

The public
Although the government and private sectors do not put a great deal of emphasis on cultural tourism, some NGOs and community groups have been starting to explore cultural tours. Walk in Hong Kong, The Conservancy Association and Hoi Bun Heritage Docents Society, to name a few comparatively well-known examples, have also been holding different kinds of workshops and tours promoting Hong Kong’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage sites. These include film-themed tours and cemetery tours, amongst others.

What’s next?
Heritage sites do in fact record a place’s history, construct people’s cultural identity, and promote their sense of belonging. In Hong Kong, a city operating at the high end of capitalism, the lack of sense of belonging can make people place money as their first priority, or indeed vice versa. It is still very difficult to strike up meaningful conservations here with such an ideology. Interaction, communication and even cooperation between the government and the public should be encouraged. As part of a global trend and phenomenon that more and more tourists are striving to gain knowledge during their journey, and with the government’s power, policies and subsidies, the community groups within the general public are believed to have enough resources and abilities to help promote this new type of tourism. I am convinced that cultural tourism is much more sustainable and offers great potential to the development of Hong Kong’s tourist industry as a whole.

Cheung Wai Lo

Registered Tour Guide in Hong Kong,
MSSc in Sustainable Tourism, GRM, CUHK

A man who loves travelling, who is passionate about Hong Kong’s cultural history and nature, and who desires locals and foreigners alike to know more about the true Hong Kong.