Hello Hong Kong? We need to remind tourists why we’re simply the best

A bolder, more imaginative approach is needed, better policy coordination and the dropping of all Covid-19 restrictions. Even after that, the tourism industry will need time to ramp back up to full service and return to a ‘World City’ mindset.

Criticising such a well-intended initiative as Hello Hong Kong is likely to get me written off as something of a party pooper, so maybe I should start by saying some of the good things.

First, it is great that the government is paying so much attention to the tourism industry and devoting considerable resources to supporting its revival after three years of Covid-19-induced disaster.

Second, the personal involvement of the chief executive in such a high-profile manner sends a clear signal to the whole administration – and indeed the entire “HK Inc” superstructure – that the exercise is serious and everyone is expected to get behind it.

Finally, there are clear signs the government does recognise the depth and breadth of the problems the industry is facing and that we need to be in it for the long haul. There have been several official warnings that we cannot expect a quick recovery.

All that said, I do have a bone to pick over some aspects. Let’s start with the slogan. “Hello Hong Kong” means we are greeting ourselves. The idea surely is to put the welcome mat out for people who are not here, so maybe “Say hello to Hong Kong” would better capture the spirit.

A bolder, more imaginative approach might take the line, “Sorry we had to close. But now we’re open again. Welcome back”, which can be shortened to “Welcome back to Hong Kong” or something similar. Our advertising industry has some of the best brains in Asia and I am confident they can do better.

We also need to improve coordination. For example, in the same week we launched the campaign with a particular focus on Asean in the first phase, our police arrested a Thai tourist for not wearing a mask. The incident attracted widespread attention on Thai-language social media. Thailand scrapped its mask mandate last July.

Which brings me to the general point about the control measures that still linger here many months after they were dropped elsewhere. We are still doing far too much testing as a matter of routine instead of only checking in special circumstances.

Apparently, those flying in are still expected to do a rapid antigen test (RAT) before check-in, though there doesn’t seem to be any enforcement. I received queries on this point from overseas after it was specifically mentioned at the big press conference.

Reopening with the mainland is a huge boost and dropping the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test requirement is a boon, but how does maintaining it for those recently arrived from elsewhere square with our role as a springboard to the mainland? We still have food exhibitions where you can’t sample the products. Do we still have the warning announcement on incoming flights about monkeypox?

To preserve domestic harmony, I have had to promise not to bang on yet again about the mask mandate but our current rules are absurd. I am repeatedly being lectured about the administration’s sensible step-by-step approach to dismantling the controls, but are we really the only city in the northern hemisphere with a flu season?

OK, let’s assume all the controls – and I do mean all – are dropped in the next couple of months. Then, how do we get back to being a thriving industry once again, albeit with perhaps more emphasis on quality rather than quantity?

The challenge facing the airline sector has been well publicised. Aircraft parked in the desert in another continent need to be thoroughly checked before they can be brought back into service. Pilots with insufficient flying hours need to be recertified, laid-off cabin crew need to be lured back (unlikely in many cases) or trained from scratch. And routes, once cancelled, don’t just reestablish themselves. It all takes time, planning and resources.

The cruise and exhibition industries work on a two- or three-year planning cycle so we will just have to wait for our chance to push back in to their schedules. Meanwhile, we need to make sure the support environment is still there: the teams who can get several thousand passengers and crew and their baggage off a cruise ship, board the new batch with sufficient provisions and turn the vessel around in just a few hours; the teams that do the same for exhibitions.

Apart from a loss of skilled staff, which to an extent can be identified and quantified, there is the additional problem of whether the staff who remain have maintained their skill set and kept abreast with technological advances in their industry.

For example, I have received reports of long delays when checking into hotels as staff on the front desk struggle to find records of confirmed bookings on the computers. “Such a long queue would not be accepted at a five-star hotel on the mainland” was one comment.

There are also mindset issues. On a recent visit to Ocean Park with two mainland visitors, we were all surprised when the commentary for the dolphin show was entirely in Cantonese with not a word in English or Mandarin. World city, anyone?

There has also been criticism of the campaign video as being old-school and lacking flair, notwithstanding the enthusiastic participation on a volunteer basis of many prominent personalities. Several readers sent me, as a reminder, copies of the 1996 promotion which featured Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best”. That used to be our motto. We must make it so again.