Hong Kong’s eco-tourism industry will receive a HK$50 million (US$7 million) boost from the government to stay afloat amid a slump in the arrival of visitors to the city and an economic downturn.
From January to June next year, travel agencies will receive a HK$100 subsidy per tourist for each trip to a bunch of shortlisted “green tourist spots”, which include country parks and the Geopark in Sai Kung, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah announced on Monday.
The maximum subsidy a travel agent can receive has been capped at HK$50,000.
Officials hoped the scheme, aimed to attract local residents, would promote “green tourism”, although environmental pressure groups and some tour operators said the government was “rushing through” the scheme without carefully considering its environmental impacts.
“There has been suggestions that while we are having a tough time attracting tourists to the city, we should open up our precious green spots – including country parks which occupy more than 40 per cent of our territory – to Hong Kong people,” Yau said.
Tourist arrivals to the city suffered a 56 per cent year-on-year drop in November, a trend which Yau said continued in early December as well.
According to the Immigration Department, the number of inbound visitors dropped 28.4 per cent to about 367,300 on December 22 this year from the same day last year.
But Yau hoped the situation would improve, at least locally, with the introduction of the scheme.
Hong Kong’s tourism industry has been hit hard by anti-government protests over the past six months, with peaceful demonstrations often turning into violent battles between protesters and police at railway stations, university campuses, shopping malls, tourist spots, and even residential areas. More than 40 jurisdictions around the world have issued advisories to their people against travelling to the city.
Yau dismissed concerns over possible adverse environmental impacts if more tourists flocked to the country parks or outlying islands. He said more than 12 million people visit the country parks every year and the parks had the capacity to handle more footfall.
Acting environment minister Tse Chin-wan said travel agents should observe guidelines – such as reducing the use of disposable materials – to protect the environment while taking tourists to the eco-tourism spots.
Jason Wong Chun-tat, chairman of the Hong Kong Travel Industry Council, hoped travel agents would lower the fees for such tours following the government’s announcement of subsidy.
At present, travel agents charge anything between HK$100 to a few hundred dollars per person per tour.
However, a section of tour operators criticised the government for “rushing through” the scheme and “deviating from the original mission of green tourism”.
Paul Chan Chi-yuen, founder of Walk in Hong Kong, said most travel agents lacked any interest or experience in organising eco-tours.
“The government is using money to create an interest in green tours, but it will not work,” Chan said.
As part of the latest scheme, to be eligible for the subsidy, travel agents are required to hire transporters and caterers, apart from local tour guides, for tourists.
“But the whole point of green tourism is to promote low-carbon-footprint and low-consumption travelling. Are we going to achieve that?” Chan said.
Hahn Chu Hon-keung, director of environmental advocacy at Green Earth, also said the government should first carefully assess the capacity of the country parks.
“We welcome the government’s initiative to promote eco-tourism. But the execution of the plan seems to have been rushed through,” Chu said. “This makes one wonder: is it just to give out money to support the tourism industry amid the ongoing slump?”
Chu added more efforts were needed to train tour guides to eventually enhance the public’s understanding of conservation.
Lukewarm response to finance scheme
Meanwhile, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been slow in signing up for the government’s scheme to borrow loans from banks.
In the first week since the launch of a new arrangement under the SME Financing Guarantee Scheme, five major banks have received only 30 applications. Of these, only 10 applications were referred to Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation (HKMC) following vetting, with five applications already approved, Raymond Li Ling-cheung, the HKMC’s chief executive officer, said.
As part of the scheme, the government provides a 90 per cent guarantee for loans of up to HK$6 million and with a repayment period of five years, to boost the enterprises amid economic downturn.
Danny Lau Tat-pong, honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Small and Medium Enterprises Association, said merely 3 per cent of members managed to receive funding from the government's separate loans support arrangement, a similar scheme which was rolled out in 2008 to provide 80 per cent guarantee.
Although the HKMC pledged to complete the vetting process within three days of getting referrals from banks, Lau said companies generally took two weeks for the same work.
He urged for relaxing restrictions for applicants to the scheme from sectors – such as food and beverage, retail, and tourism – where businesses had been more seriously affected.
But Li and Yau insisted the initial feedbacks were positive to help SMEs to improve their cash flows. Li said banks would need some time to go through the applicants’ statements and cash flow performance, but added the process had been streamlined and companies had been saved from submitting full financial statements during application.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung