Hong Kong it is!

Hong Kong launched new initiatives to promote its wider attractions to lure visitors again following the Asian financial crisis and its efforts are paying off. Hong Kong is also trying to attract family tourists from the Middle East as part of its global marketing strategy. MARK LAZELL reports.
One of the most spectacular city skylines in the world.

It's early morning in Victoria Park, a green area nestled between the high rise, hi-tech office blocks which make Hong Kong one of the world's most important financial centres.

Elderly women perform their daily ritual of Tai Chi, a spiritual exercise more reminiscent of an era when Hong Kong - meaning Fragrant Harbour in the Cantonese dialect - was an important incense producer and public transport was strictly by human rickshaw.

The sight is seemingly a million miles from the Hong Kong which has, for many years, been perceived as a spectacular city skyline backed by mountains, world-famous Cantonese food, world-class shopping, the Star Ferry and Victoria Peak.

But perceptions are now changing as the former British territory launches new initiatives to promote its wider attractions to lure visitors again following the difficult days of the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

The response so far this year has been encouraging.

A little more than one million visitors arrived in Hong Kong - now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China - in April, a 3.1 per cent increase over the same period of last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB), and follows moderate growth in visitor numbers since January.

Arrivals from Japan, Korea and the Americas showed the greatest growth rates, while arrivals from Europe and Southeast Asia slowed over the period as economic concerns and the low value of the euro against the US dollar continued to bite.

However, the HKTB - formerly the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA) until April this year - says that it is optimistic that these numbers will continue to rise for the remainder of this year and that tourism spending will increase to pre-1998 levels.

The Middle East market is one area of particular interest to the HKTB, according to officials, who point to the SAR's facilities for Muslim travellers - a centrally-located Islamic Centre and mosque and numerous Halal restaurants - as key selling points.

Traditionally, visitors from the Middle East have tended to be high yield, short stay business travellers.

But Hong Kong is now also aiming to lure the longer stay family visitors from the region, and is putting plans firmly in place to do so.

"We have lots of facilities for children, including Ocean Park, and in four years time this will be complemented by Disneyland - the second such park in Asia after Tokyo," said an HKTB official, who added that the Board's role must now be to convince Middle East travel agents that Hong Kong is good for families.

"We already have plenty of experience in catering to the specific demands of Muslim visitors from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia," he explained.

For the HKTB's part, the global marketing of Hong Kong is an ongoing strategy.

Exhibiting at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) in Dubai in May, HKTB officials noted increased interest in the Far East for Middle East travellers, away from the traditionally popular destinations of Europe and the United States.

"Tourists from the Gulf look for brand name shopping and value for money, for example. Hong Kong has those and much, much more," said the HKTB official.

That Hong Kong has much more cannot be in doubt. In Ocean Park, the territory has one of the leading family-orientated theme parks in Asia, complete with the latest thrilling mechanical rides, animal conservation schemes and cultural shows.

Away from the world-class air-conditioned shopping malls are a number of unique outdoor markets which epitomise the rich culture and character of Hong Kong and which offer excellent bargains.

A trip to Victoria Peak, either by the steep Peak Tram vernicular or by bus as it winds its way up through the leafy lanes and residences of the rich and famous of Hong Kong, provides perhaps one of the most spectacular urban views on earth over this city of more than 200,000 neon signs.

And events such as the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens are well-established fixtures on the global sporting events calendar.

But HKTB is keen also to show a different side to Hong Kong, a Hong Kong of clean sandy beaches, of remote hiking trails rich in flora and fauna, of quiet temples, and wetland areas of global ecological importance.

Not normally images associated with Hong Kong, but the message from the HKTB is simple - with approximately 260 outlying islands and a substantial portion of mainland territory in the New Territories, Hong Kong really is a land of diversity.

In an effort to change perceptions, Hong Kong embarked on a new two-year community-wide campaign in April.

Under the catchy slogan 'City of Life - Hong Kong is it!' programmes have been devised in a HK$250 million (US$32 million) scheme to highlight events, festivals and attractions in all of Hong Kong's 18 districts.

"Research tells us that general tourists restrict themselves to three or four districts," said the HKTB official.

"Now, we are reaching out to our communities to offer a cultural kaleidoscope."

Five major events are currently in the planning stage - Hong Kong Lights Up (a festive lighting programme at the end of this year); International Chinese New Year Parade for the Year of the Horse next year; Hong Kong Flower Extravaganza; Mega Hong Kong Sale (a territory-wide shopping promotion in summer 2002) and the City of Life Street Carnival (to be held in early 2003).

But while Hong Kong is constantly looking at ways of reinventing itself and its image, many factors remain constant.

From the highly efficient and cheap public transport to hi-tech hotels, the HKTB is keen to stress that, since the territory's handover to China in 1997, it has been very much business as usual and many of the post-1997 concerns in the tourist industry have simply not materialised.

Indeed, many aspects of its former colonial heritage, such as the quirky British street names, underground stations and town names, have been retained while Chinese arts and culture has undoubtedly been enriched.

New hotels are being constructed to cater to the full spectrum of travellers' needs for the future, reflecting the optimism in this key Chinese economic centre.

At the Best Western International Rosedale-on-the-Park Hotel property in centrally-located Causeway Bay, for instance, Hong Kong has its first cyber boutique hotel, specifically aimed at business visitors, with all rooms enjoying broadband Internet access and a digital enhanced cordless telephone which guests can use to receive incoming or make outgoing calls anywhere in the hotel rather than miss calls in their room.

Open since February, the 'intelligent' Rosedale-on-the-Park is perhaps the shape of things to come in Hong Kong's hotel industry. With one eye on the potentially lucrative Middle East market, the hotel opened last month a Halal restaurant. Room occupancy rates are good, too.

For the future, the HKTB also sees Hong Kong very much in its wider role in the heart of Asia.

The fact remains that Hong Kong lies within five hours flying time of one third of the world's population.

Regional cooperation, rather than rivalry, is likely to be the name of the game in years to come, according to the HKTB, as the region as a whole looks to learn from the shocks of 1998.

"We look at China, for instance, as a complementary destination, especially for long haul travellers," said the official, who added that the simple immigration procedures enjoyed for many years by visitors will continue.

The infrastructure is already in place to cement Hong Kong's role as a hub. Hong Kong-based intercontinental pioneer Cathay Pacific Airways has gone a long way to developing and enhancing the city's reputation for excellence.

And in Chep Lap Kok, Hong Kong boasts one of the most futuristic airports in Asia Pacific, a vital regional asset - linked by high-speed rail link to the city in 25 minutes - which looks set to greet the next generation of business and leisure travellers well into the future.

* Mark Lazell visited Hong Kong as a guest of Cathay Pacific Airways, the Best Western Rosedale-on-the-Park Hotel, P & O Travel, CX Holidays and the Hong Kong Tourism Board. Cathay Pacific flies daily to Hong Kong from Bahrain and Dubai.