Protests harm HK tourism? Where’s the data?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

Government and politicians are putting the blame of current tourism downturn on protests. But their evidence in support of the correlation is far from convincing.

Over the past year, many backers of Hong Kong’s tourism industry have been singing a common refrain. Fearing the business impact of reduced visitor arrivals and eager for convenient explanations, individual companies, the industry bodies that represent them, and a host of government and legislative supporters have decided that protests must be, in part, responsible.

Legislator Tam Yiu-chung (譚耀宗) of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) is a textbook case. “The tourism sector has been hit hard,” he told the media in April 2016. “If you were a tourist, you would not feel comfortable visiting a place where some people were hostile to you and wanted to cut ties with your country.”

Tam was speaking in support of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英). Leung had just claimed that independence advocacy, frequently undertaken through means of protest in Hong Kong, would reduce mainlanders’ willingness to visit the territory. Barely a week later, the Chief Executive said anti-parallel-trading protesters were “destroying Hong Kong’s reputation as a hospitable city”.

Those who report to Leung have joined in the game. In February, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah (曾俊華) stated that a riot in Mong Kok had affected tourists’ impressions of Hong Kong. Gregory So Kam-leung (蘇錦樑), who holds the tourism portfolio as Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development (CEDB), has spoken similarly on multiple occasions.

On the LegCo side, Yiu Si-wing (姚思榮) of the Tourism Functional Constituency seems to believe there is a contest for how frequently one can implicate protests in the tourism downturn. He is also happy to defend others’ analyses, such as that of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), which stressed the impact of protest campaigns in its China’s Tourism Development: Analysis and Forecast (2015-2016).

The list of names also includes pro-establishment legislators Ann Chiang Lai-wan (蔣麗芸), Chan Kam-lam (陳鑑林), Elizabeth Quat (葛珮帆), and Christopher Cheung Wah-fung (張華峰). Not to be excluded are representatives of industry bodies, such as Travel Industry Council Chairman Wong Chun-tat (黃進達). As if this were not enough, Peter Lam Kin-ngok (林建岳), Chairman of Hong Kong’s tourism promotion body, the Tourism Board, has joined the fray.

Rounding out the chorus are the unions, from the Hong Kong Tourism Industry Employees General Union, to the Hong Kong Trade Unions in Tourism, to the Hotels, Food and Beverage Employees Association.


Correlation Is Not Causation

Such resounding unity of message is interesting in light of the fact that little empirical evidence suggests that protests alone can affect a location’s tourism industry. “Protests” are not the same thing as “political violence” or “civil unrest”, and it is on these event types that most such research focuses.

In what he terms as the first study that quantifies the impact of “political violence” on tourism, London School of Economics Professor Eric Neumeyer identifies a statistically significant linkage between tourism woes and acts of terrorism, military coups, revolutions and other such events. Garden-variety protests lie somewhat outside of his scope. This is a crucial, for, February’s Mong Kok riot, a few isolated moments of the 2014 Umbrella protests, and occasional small-scale scuffles that characterize some anti-parallel-trading protests aside, overt violence is not a prominent characteristic of most Hong Kong protests.

A later study on Thailand finds that “political instability” may deter tourists but emphasizes that the major concern of travelers is actually safety. It stands to reason that protest events that do not cause tourists to question their safety may not have a significant impact on tourism. After all, France is renowned for its culture of highly pervasive labor unrest but regularly tops the global tourism rankings of the UN World Tourism Organization.

In short, what we do know about protests suggests that the degree to which they impact tourism may depend on the particular characteristics of different protest events. The impact is not a given.


Unsatisfying Data

This does not mean that Hong Kong protests have no effect on visitor arrivals. However, it does put the burden of responsibility on those who would claim such a linkage to do and share their homework. Sadly, claimants have repeatedly fallen short.

For instance, when Lam Tai-fai (林大輝) of the Industrial (Second) Functional Constituency asked CEDB Secretary Gregory So whether his bureau had assessed the correlation between the fall in mainland visitor arrivals and “protests against parallel traders”, “conflicts between the two places”, “the riot in Mong Kok”, “social sentiments”, and “‘shopping tour’ protests”, So stopped at noting the difficulty of estimating the impact of individual factors.

Likewise, industry analysts and advocates have been slow to provide transparent and authoritative support for their positions, although the brokerage CLSA comes close by attempting to link “tensions against mainlanders” to tourist activity. According to that company’s January 2016 report on Chinese outbound tourism, composed on the basis of a survey of 401 mainland travelers, 75 percent of respondents say safety is the leading factor that influences their choice of destination.

CLSA provides no information on how to access the full report, making it difficult for casual observers to assess the quality of the survey questions or methodology. However, it is clear that mainlanders’ general interest in safety would not necessarily equal a fear of protests, nor does it suggest that mainlanders have safety fears while visiting Hong Kong.

As for the CASS’ tourism development report – available only for purchase – Hong Kong coverage of its release is long on analysts’ conjectures and short on quantifiable specifics.

Some critics have attempted to sidestep this data shortcoming by comparing Hong Kong to its neighboring SAR. In February 2016, Hong Kong Tourism Board Chairman Peter Lam Kin-ngok told a LegCo panel that tourists had chosen to go to Macau instead of Hong Kong after the Mong Kok riot.

In light of that event’s violent nature, and lacking data on tourists’ actual reasoning, this sounds plausible, although little evidence suggests a lasting impact. In fact, tourism industry representatives were pleasantly surprised to learn that the number of mainland visitors rose 10 percent year-on-year during the May 2016 Labor Day golden week.

This would not be the first time that visitor arrival numbers had contradicted the establishment narrative. Most memorably, during the 2014 Umbrella protests, October golden week tourist numbers rose by 4.83 percent year on year. Over the entire month, overall visitor arrivals rose by 12.6 percent.


Time to Check Out?

Tourism industry stakeholders have a right to be concerned, but they do themselves no favors by attributing the industry’s troubles, even in part, to unverified causes. This can only lead to ineffective policymaking.

Other likely reasons for the current downturn are frequently cited, including in many of this article’s linked sources. They include currency movements, a Chinese anticorruption campaign, slower economic growth on the mainland, changes in travel preferences, changing immigration policies and more. CEDB Secretary Gregory So is correct that the degree to which each of these potential causes deter tourists is difficult to identify. But this does not free the government, or anyone else who sees a problem in need of fixing, from doing the necessary research.

The best way to find out why travelers are staying away is to ask them. If CLSA can conduct a survey, surely So’s bureau or any one of the organizations mentioned above can do the same. Better yet, they might undertake regular random sampling, ask pertinent questions, release their data to the public, and explain how they arrive at any conclusions. This would provide observers with a valuable source of data while clarifying the dividing line between genuine analysis and political grandstanding.

If the industry’s supporters or analysts can’t manage such an obvious course of action, perhaps they should throw in the towel now, or at least have that towel laundered by local hotel workers left idle by the downturn.