An attraction on the south side of Hong Kong Island known for its eclectic mix of shops is losing its quaint, breezy charm as vendors struggle with sales despite a record number of visitors last year.
From local souvenirs and shops touting postcards in English and Chinese, to cheap clothes, paintings, and Chinese handicrafts, Stanley Market has long been a tourism hotspot.
But in recent years, shops along its winding streets have had their shutters closed, with some ending up as canvases for graffiti artists. According to property agents, a 900 sq ft space costs HK$65,000 a month to rent.
The problem the area faces is an unwillingness by visitors to buy goods, with most dropping by only for pictures and a drink. Some vendors blame this on online shopping, others on the change in the nationalities of tourists visiting the town, and some recognise that what they sell is no longer what people want.
The marketplace is still frequented by Korean tourists, but most are reluctant to spend big, according to retailers. Even Westerners, who used to form a significant proportion of buyers, have been less enthusiastic in recent years.
Cashmere goods and craft works seller Man Lo, who has been plying his trade there since 1992, wistfully recalls the good old days – at its peak, his outlet Winnie Shop could bring in a revenue of HK$1 million a month.
“In the past, there could hardly be vacant shops on the streets. Even if there were, they wouldn’t be left empty for more than a month,” the 48-year-old said, adding that some units have been sitting empty for four to five years.
The decline in his business started in 2010, with Lo struggling to clear HK$200,000 a month in revenue, something he said might be caused by the emergence of online shopping.
He also said he had seen fewer tourists from America, Europe and Japan, an observation supported by the latest tourism figures.
Visitor growth from non-mainland markets to Hong Kong was sluggish last year, with just a 0.6 per cent increase to 14.1 million from 2017 – and Stanley Market did not benefit much from those who did come.
The lacklustre performance lies in stark contrast to the 14.8 per cent rise in mainland tourists. The 51 million visitors from across the border drove the city’s total arrival figure to a record 65.1 million travellers in 2018.
This year the Hong Kong Tourism Board has pledged to boost the number of overnight visitors, who tend to spend more, while the beaches and reservoirs in Southern District are listed as part of its new green tourism scheme.
The area might also be included in the board’s Hong Kong Neighbourhoods campaign, which promotes local districts for tourism.
A source familiar with the campaign said the government was keen to include Southern District in the campaign in the coming year. But district councillors worried the influx of tourists would disrupt residents’ daily lives, with pro-democracy member Au Nok-hin suggesting promotion should only focus on certain spots, such as Stanley.
Lo said if the scheme brought in more individual travellers from across the border, it would not make a difference for retailers because their goods were mostly for overseas tourists.
“But it doesn’t really matter, at least they can help the restaurant business,” he said.
While restaurants at Stanley waterfront are usually packed with locals and tourists enjoying the sea view at weekends, the scene on weekdays is the complete opposite, with menu-wielding waiters trying to attract the few tourists there are on the quiet street.
Debby Hung Yuet-kuen, a tea product vendor at the other end of the road from the shopping outlet, agreed that bringing in more mainland tourists to Stanley would not help.
Hung, the boss of My Cup of Tea, said travel agencies had brought mainland tour groups to the city via the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link after it opened in September last year, but it did not work well.
“They come and mess with your goods, but they do not buy,” the businesswoman said.
“Mainlanders’ [spending] just benefited one side [of Hong Kong] – buying gold, cosmetics and medicines. Will they buy craft works like this? They won’t, because these were imported from their place.”
Hung said businesses across the market had been left out of the flourishing tourism industry. She wants officials to explore more overseas markets to diversify the sector.
Still, the tourism board has not decided which district should go next in the Hong Kong Neighbourhoods campaign, according to its spokeswoman. It promised to consult district councils when putting forward a neighbourhood promotional plan.
While officials iron out the details, some overseas tourists who returned to the market were already disappointed with how it had changed.
I was looking forward to a shopping spree … I am so upset, as my memories of a wonderful place have been shattered
British visitor Sue Swan
After a recent visit with her family, British visitor Sue Swan said the retailing area was no longer as vibrant as she experienced in 1995 and 2002, as the range of goods available had shrunk.
“I could not find designer anything, the hustle and bustle of jostling crowds has vanished. I was looking forward to a shopping spree, instead all I could find to buy was a lipstick and spectacle case,” she said.
“I am so upset, as my memories of a wonderful place have been shattered.”
Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said vendors and the tourism board should work together to refine their product lines, and develop special local souvenirs.
“If they are targeting overseas visitors, they have to review their product lines to match what travellers want,” Yiu said.
In response to that problem, local company Inceptio Labs plans to launch a bazaar, and a treasure hunt, next month in Stanley in an attempt to boost the town’s popularity.
Its director, Winson Siu Tsz-kit, said he only discovered that Stanley Market had become so quiet after a local church invited him to organise activities at its property there.
He said the products sold in the market, such as paintings and bookmarks, could be easily found online, so the company wanted to help the shopping outlet sharpen its brand.
Siu wants to use the bazaar to test whether tourists will be interested in local handicrafts.
“We can test the water,” he said. “We hope to help the district and the shops to fly again.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- US-China trade war and stronger US dollar will cause Hong Kong’s tourism industry to slow in 2019
- Chief Executive Carrie Lam urges Hong Kong tourism officials to fight overcrowding by spreading mainland Chinese visitors around the city
This article Made in China trinkets gather dust in Stanley Market as visitor numbers fall and tourists in Hong Kong turn their backs on mass-produced souvenirs first appeared on South China Morning Post