The MTR Corporation is planning to step up marketing campaigns for Hong Kong’s high-speed cross-border rail link, following a lacklustre first year of operations.
Rex Auyeung Pak-kuen, the MTR chairman, acknowledged that the much-hyped rail link had been affected by more than three months of social unrest, which discouraged mainland visitors and Hongkongers from crossing the border.
“Now we are facing daunting challenges, but it doesn’t mean that we’ll be giving up,” he said. “It’s like going through turbulence — we’ll keep moving towards our destination.
“We’ll roll out some promotion campaigns to stimulate the interest of both tourists and locals for travelling via the high-speed railway. But whether our promotions attract more travellers is beyond our control.”
The HK$84.4 billion (US$10.7 billion) high-speed rail link opened on September 23 last. Latest figures show that until the end of August, it carried a total of more than 17.8 million travellers. Daily ridership was just 52,111 — more than one-third fewer than the government’s estimate of 80,100.
As anti-government protests escalated through August, ridership plunged from 1.56 million in July to 1.16 million – or an average of only 37,623 passengers per day.
August saw visitor arrivals fall about 40 per cent, compared with the same month last year.
Before the rail link opened last year, Hong Kong transport minister Frank Chan Fan was confident that it would be profitable from Day One and would not incur losses.
The 26km Hong Kong stretch connects with a mainland section that links the city to 58 destinations across China, an increase of 14 cities from 44 last year.
Lawmaker and former railway boss Michael Tien Puk-sun said the link was built to facilitate Hong Kong’s integration with the Greater Bay Area, the Chinese government’s master plan to connect Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong cities to create a technology-driven economic powerhouse to rival California’s Silicon Valley.
“The high-speed rail link was built to invest in the future, not to resolve transport congestion or cope with the flow of cross-border travellers. Its purpose is to facilitate the implementation of the national policy – Hong Kong’s integration with the mainland,” he said.
However, the high-speed rail link’s sluggish debut also reflected the lack of concrete national policy measures to develop the southern region.
“So far there has been only empty talk about the Greater Bay Area with no concrete incentives such as welfare and tax concessions to lure Hongkongers north. How can people have the desire to work or live on the mainland?” he asked.
Agreeing that ongoing anti-government protests in Hong Kong have had an effect too, he said: “Local people become increasingly reluctant to travel or work on the mainland because of the rising political tensions against China.”
Quentin Cheng Hin-kei, a spokesman for commuter concern group Public Transport Research Team, said the protests had deterred mainlanders from visiting Hong Kong while Hongkongers were also reluctant to go to the mainland for fear of landing in trouble with mainland immigration officers.
They have been spooked by the case of Simon Cheng Man-kit, 28, a British consulate employee in Hong Kong, who was detained for more than two weeks in Shenzhen last month for what mainland police said was “solicitation of prostitution”.
He was stopped by Chinese authorities on August 8 after returning to Hong Kong on a high-speed train and was about to go through customs at the West Kowloon terminus’ joint checkpoint.
Cheng said it has put off Hongkongers from travelling to the mainland.
“If not for work or business, why would they take this risk just for the sake of spending on the mainland? There are a lot of travelling options such as Thailand or Taiwan,” he said.
A manager of the West Kowloon terminus branch of the Tim Ho Wan dim sum chain said the outlet’s business had declined by more than 20 per cent since July.
“Our customers are mainly tourists and our business has been very good since the launch of the high-speed rail,” he said. “But since the end of July the number of tourists coming via the high-speed rail has dropped drastically due to the protests and we’ve started to feel the pinch.”
With the fall in business, the restaurant let go of two workers.
The manager, surnamed Mak, said: “There’s nothing much we can do. We hope that there will be a rebound during the October golden week.”
He was referring to China’s annual week-long holiday in the first week of October, during which hundreds of millions of mainlanders criss-cross the country on vacation trips.
In the rail link’s departure hall, mainlander Sarah Xie, 25, who works in a mainland IT firm, came to Hong Kong with some colleagues to arrange accommodation for clients who will have regular business meetings in Hong Kong.
She found that hotels had cut their monthly rates. “We found a hotel in Tsuen Wan which offered HK$25,000 per month for our clients at a discount of HK$5,000. We think the deal is really good as it also provides a cleaning service,” she said.
Ray Han, a businesswoman in her 30s from Xiamen, in Fujian Province, came to Hong Kong for the first time a week ago.
“Many relatives told me not to come during this period because of the disturbances, but I insisted on coming,” she said.
The social unrest did not affect her mood to go sightseeing.
“I think Hong Kong has its unique character. The social unrest has not affected my visit. I just avoided going to places where there would be protests.”