Coronavirus: Visitor numbers for Hong Kong continue to plunge as tourism lawmaker calls for clear criteria on border opening plans

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Coronavirus: Visitor numbers for Hong Kong continue to plunge as tourism lawmaker calls for clear criteria on border opening plans

The Hong Kong Tourism Board reported a 97.4 per cent drop in the number of visitors in 2021, as the lawmaker representing the industry urged the government to clearly establish the criteria for reopening the border with mainland China.

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The number of arrivals fell from 3.57 million in 2020 to 91,398 last year and the number of tourists was “close to zero”, according to figures the board released on Monday.

“With anti-epidemic measures involving boundary or border control, the majority of inbound travellers visited Hong Kong for family visits or out of necessity,” it said.

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Despite being eligible for the long-running solo traveller scheme since 2003, the number of arrivals from the mainland in 2021 fell 97.6 per cent from 2.76 million to 65,694.

Tourism sector lawmaker Perry Yiu Pak-leung said he was not surprised by the sharp decline, adding that strict border controls had taken a heavy toll on the industry “with no end in sight”.

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He called on the government to clarify the criteria required for the resumption of cross-border travel to the mainland, saying that was the only hope for the sector.

“We are like the animals in hibernation, and a border opening is like spring to us. But we don’t know whether it will happen in the near future,” he said.

The tourism industry contributed 4.5 per cent of the gross domestic product in 2018, but the amount fell to 0.4 per cent last year.

To help offset the economic impact of the fifth wave, the government announced on Friday that the Anti-epidemic Fund would it would provide HK$3.57 billion (US$458 million) to affected business sectors, including tourism.

The subsidies will support both tour agencies and individuals, with each local guide receiving a one-off subsidy of HK$7,500.

Under the new allocation, travel agencies with 10 or fewer staffers will get a one-off subsidy of HK$50,000, while larger agencies would receive HK$5,000 per employee.

Coronavirus: Visitor numbers for Hong Kong continue to plunge as tourism lawmaker calls for clear criteria on border opening plans

Tourism sector lawmaker Perry Yiu has urged the government to set out the criteria for resuming cross-border travel with mainland China. Photo: May Tse

But Hong Kong Tourism Industry Employees General Union chairwoman Sara Leung Fong-yuen said the new round of funding was “unacceptable”.

“The relief fund will have the limited help, just for stanch bleeding, the border reopening is the most important and the disproportionate fund cannot recover the tourism industry,” Leung said. “I hope the policy can be more flexible and realistic.”

The union chairwoman also raised her concern over the loss of work in the sector, with many “frustrated and hopeless” tourism workers being forced to change careers.

Former tour guide Ning Tong, 60, who quit his job in 2020 and became a security guard afterwards, said he hoped the government could plug the loophole in fighting the virus.

“The tourism industry has been suffering from the unrest protests since 2019, and the virus outbreak gave us a big blow,” Tong said, “I will have nearly zero income if the government did not offer us the subsidy.”

Meanwhile, George Yeun, 58, a former tour guide with over 30 years of experience, said the sector was “on the verge of collapse”, and urged city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to provide a continuous subsidy instead of one-off handouts.

“I think the chief executive should understand that we’re experiencing a very difficult period. I cannot see the end of the pandemic, not to mention whether to pick up my previous job again,” said Yuen, who currently worked 13-hour shifts as a vaccination centre admin officer for 10 days per month.

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