Hong Kong guest houses transform into love hotels to survive protest slump, as mainland Chinese tourists stay away from city

Danny Mok

Kenneth Lee Wai-Lin has been putting a smile on the faces of Hong Kong’s guest house owners who have been reeling from losses since mainland Chinese tourists stopped visiting the city earlier this year because of strong anti-China sentiment and the increasingly violent anti-government protests.

He is also making a lot of young couples happy, because now they can choose more easily where to go for an hour or three of intimacy.

Lee, a former advertising salesman in his 40s, has developed a Chinese smartphone application that links users and providers of “hourly-rate” rooms.

He has been persuading guest house owners, whose businesses have been hit hard by the protests because of a drop in tourist footfall in Hong Kong, to offer rooms on an hourly basis. He also offers them advice on how to turn plain bedrooms into cosy love nests.

Among other things, he recommends adding soft lighting, mirrors, and painted or wallpapered walls instead of tiles.

Lily You (not her real name) runs a 60-room guest house in Mong Kok that used to enjoy almost 100 per cent occupancy all the time because of a steady flow of arrival of mainland tourists.

But the 29-year-old says she lost around HK$500,000 (US$63,873) in August and September, when mainlanders stopped coming to the city.

Kenneth Lee says the lack of space for young people to be intimate led him to develop the Eden app. Photo: Dickson Lee

Desperate, she consulted Lee and decided to make 10 rooms available on an hourly basis to attract Hong Kong couples. And she is not losing any sleep over what people might say.

“You lease rooms to ordinary tourists who stay overnight. Like husbands and wives, they are also having sex in the rooms. I don’t think love hotels are something bad,” she says.

“If each of these rooms can be let out for at least two sessions a day, it’ll be good enough for me to pay my bills.”

Rooms with an ooh: the history of Hong Kong’s love motels

Her business partner, Maggie Chan, in her 40s, also opted for starting a love hotel after seeing almost zero income from 40 rooms in her four guest houses between July and September.

Last month, she modified three rooms in one guest house to attract local couples after tapping Lee for advice.

Chan was so encouraged by the response that she signed the lease for a 15-room guest house in Jordan this month and chose to splash HK$300,000 on its decor to attract couples.

There will be different themes for every room, including a Japanese room with tatami mats, and an English country room complete with red brick walls and a fake fireplace.

She hopes couples will check in more than once, trying different rooms each time.

Initially uncomfortable with the “hourly-rate” idea, the business slump made her come round. “There is no other way out, this is bowing to reality,” she says.

David Leung, founder-chairman of the Hong Kong Guest Houses Association, says guest houses offering hourly rates appear to be doing well. Photo: Danny Mok

In Hong Kong, hotels refer to establishments that take up the entire premises of a building, whereas guest houses may just occupy a number of floors, or a number of units, in a commercial or residential block. There are about 3,000 licensed guest houses.

App developer Lee says he started thinking about the needs of couples in 2016, after 20-something pro-democracy activist Yau Wai-ching became the talk of the town with her comments on the matter. In the midst of ranting about the lack of affordable property options for young people, she blurted: “Even if we want to have sex, we can’t find a room!”

Hong Kong’s hotel sector is in free fall as violent protests keep tourists away

He was horrified later, when he picked up a magazine and saw a report with a photograph showing couples packed into the lobby of an hourly-rate hotel, waiting their turn for a room.

Lee, who is single, says he felt there had to be a better way, minus the embarrassment of waiting in a hotel lobby like that.

He says it cost him more than HK$6 million to develop the app, Eden. He put his own money into it, while he also had to attract investors.

His aim is to attract young local couples who can read traditional Chinese, the only language used on the app. Users can compare prices, check rooms, and book their rooms on their phones.

Lee says he approached 140 guest houses to tap the love market and put their rooms on his app. Many others, such as You and Chan, approached him for ideas while going through bad times.

I can say for sure if they do not modify to hourly-hotels, 80 per cent of ordinary guest houses will disappear by December

Kenneth Lee, developer of Eden app

Lee shares a “survival kit” that goes beyond decor to details such as replacing room door keys with digital locks, so shy couples do not have to wait in lobbies and interact with receptionists.

Guest house owners are usually won over when he does the maths. Instead of letting out a room for HK$700 a night, they can multiply the yield by charging HK$350 for three hours.

“I can say for sure if they do not modify to hourly-hotels, 80 per cent of ordinary guest houses will disappear by December,” he says.

Inside the murky world of Wan Chai’s love hotels

Hospitality veteran David Leung Tai-wai, founder-chairman of the Hong Kong Guest Houses Association, agrees with the gloomy outlook, saying around 60 guest houses closed this summer, and another 50 may go out of business by this month.

Latest official figures show the slump in visitor arrivals since the protests began worsened in October, which saw a 43.7 per cent drop year on year to 3.31 million. October also saw a sharp 45.9 per cent decline in the number of arrival of mainland visitors.

Overall, visitor arrivals fell 4.7 per cent in the first 10 months of the year to 50 million.

Leung says guest houses offering hourly rates appear to be doing well, so it makes sense for the operators to test this market.

Lee says users of his app book a room about four or five times a month, though some make as many as 15 bookings a month.

Guest house operator Maggie Chan is so encouraged by the response that she signed the lease for a 15-room guest house in Jordan to start a love hotel. Photo: Danny Mok

When the app was launched last year, more men used it. Now, there are equal numbers of men and women. Most go from place to place, apparently trying different guest houses.

About 10 per cent of the users are from the LGBT community, and there have also been occasions when three or more people checked into the same room at the same time.

The most popular times for bookings are lunchtime and 6pm to midnight on weekdays, and all day on Saturdays, says Lee, adding he has never used a love hotel himself.

A frequent user of love hotels, who asked to be identified as Chan, says she and her boyfriend use hourly-rate rooms every weekend because they both live with their families.

“Flats in Hong Kong are so small, and the rooms are so small, that any noise you make can be heard. There’s no privacy,” she says.

Going to a hotel for sex is nothing to be embarrassed about, she adds.

“You need it and you go, it’s just like having food,” she says.

Another frequent user, Steven Wong (not his real name), 25, says he checks in with his girlfriend about once a month for the same reason of lack of space.

“If it is an affair or if I have a new girlfriend, I will go out for sure, even if I have my own house. I will also go out if it’s an anniversary [of meeting her] or a festive day, because I will prefer a fancy room to celebrate.”

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