Greater Bay Area tourism plan lauded, but experts warn rifts between Hong Kong, mainland China remain

Denise Tsang
·9-min read

Beijing’s ambition to catapult the Greater Bay Area economic zone, which includes Hong Kong and Macau, into a cultural and tourism hub through youth engagement will have to first address the cross-border political divide, academics and experts have said.

They were responding to a development road map through 2035 revealed last month by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism that prominently highlighted exchanges in such areas as the arts, innovation and technology to bolster young people’s national education and pave the way for their future careers.

The 20-page document also called for bundling the tourism resources of the bay area – composed of nine mainland cities, Hong Kong and Macau – into a travel mecca featuring multi-destination tours, cruises and road trips, intercity arts and culture festivals, and sporting events.

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While observers said such initiatives would promote the bay area’s economic prosperity, the central government would need to bridge the cross-border gap in political and cultural views, particularly after 2019’s anti-government protest movement and Beijing’s imposition last year of a national security law on Hong Kong.

A map of the Greater Bay Area, which includes nine mainland cities, Hong Kong and Macau. Photo: AP
A map of the Greater Bay Area, which includes nine mainland cities, Hong Kong and Macau. Photo: AP

“The road map is definitely something positive. But we must think one step forward to look into how Hong Kong youth can be encouraged to join voluntarily,” said Daniel Shek Tan-lei, Polytechnic University’s interim vice-president of research and innovation.

Hong Kong was folded into the massive bay area scheme unveiled by Beijing last February in hopes of creating an economic engine to rival Silicon Valley in the United States. The 11 cities included in the plan have a total population of 71.2 million, and a combined gross domestic product of about US$1.7 trillion, accounting for roughly 12 per cent of China’s economy.

But some young people remained uninterested in the mainland’s latest cultural and tourism development plans, observers warned, saying a huge rift had opened between Hong Kong youth and the central government following the 2019 protests.

“Youths’ negative perceptions of [mainland China] have increased over the past few years, and particularly worsened after the protests and the implementation of the national security law,” said Edy Jeh Tsz-lam, student union president at the University of Hong Kong.

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“For instance, many young people have major worries about the judicial system across the border, which further deters them from paying a visit.”

Wu Wai-kuen, incoming president of PolyU’s student union, also said the 2019 protests – sparked by a now-scrapped bill that would have allowed extraditions across the border – were a major impediment to Hong Kong youths’ willingness to visit the mainland.

Wu, 19, joined multiple exchange trips to mainland China as a secondary school student, but said it was more difficult now to encourage young people to explore opportunities in the Greater Bay Area given the huge differences in values such as freedom and democracy.

“Although it is likely some young people might be interested in cultural exchange programmes to mainland China, given the current tensions, many university students would not be too interested in working or joining exchange trips there,” he said.

A fire burns near Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November of 2019 during clashes between police and anti-government protesters. Photo: Winson Wong
A fire burns near Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November of 2019 during clashes between police and anti-government protesters. Photo: Winson Wong

But Shek, from PolyU, said although some young Hongkongers remained ambivalent towards the mainland, perceptions may change in the long run.

Before the social unrest, Shek led a research project in 2018 and 2019, that found local university students showed an increased sense of national identity after taking short trips to the mainland for cultural tours, service learning and summer term events.

“The growth of the bay area is inevitable. Taking a first step to visit the area would definitely be beneficial,” he said. “Should we continue to say no to new opportunities, or should we consider trying to embrace something which is going to be good?”

Noel Shih, youth branch chairman of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, also struck a more optimistic tone.

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Hong Kong youths, he maintained, were attracted to “soft power” recreational activities in mainland China, such as visiting bubble tea shops, hotpot restaurants and karaoke lounges, something that would continue to appeal to the younger generation going forward.

However, Paul Yip Siu-fai, chair professor at HKU’s department of social work and social administration, said young people wanted more than just jobs, and would need to have their social misgivings assuaged.

“The government has to work harder to address their concerns, though the blueprint is a good initiative,” he said. “They need the freedom they choose, the living conditions and political environment they desire.”

The central government hopes to link tourism to Hong Kong with excursions across the border to cities like Shenzhen (pictured). Photo: Martin Chan
The central government hopes to link tourism to Hong Kong with excursions across the border to cities like Shenzhen (pictured). Photo: Martin Chan

David Lai Cheuk-yin, senior researcher at MWYO, a local think tank specialising in youth policies, suggested that lower average salaries and strong competition with local talent across the border would also put a damper on the new road map’s overall appeal to Hongkongers.

Dennis Ng Wang-pun, a permanent honorary president of one of Hong Kong’s largest business chambers, the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association, agreed it would be hard for the government to convince young people to pursue opportunities in the bay area.

“But younger people are encouraged to go see with their own eyes what the country really is like before jumping into any conclusion,” he said. “China is not as dreadful as they imagine.”

The chamber regularly sponsors scholarships and exchange programmes for Hong Kong students in China.

Visitors watch the sunset from Hong Kong’s Sky 100, a 360-degree indoor observation deck at the International Commerce Centre, in West Kowloon. Photo: EPA-EFE
Visitors watch the sunset from Hong Kong’s Sky 100, a 360-degree indoor observation deck at the International Commerce Centre, in West Kowloon. Photo: EPA-EFE

According to Chow Man-kong, an associate professor with Lingnan University’s Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, the youth population in the Greater Bay Area was the third-largest of all the regional economies of mainland China.

He cited his own research showing there were 2.38 million young people studying in 181 tertiary education institutions in Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau in 2018, compared with 3 million spread across 270 institutions in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei metropolitan area, and 5.08 million at 458 institutions in the Yangtze River Delta.

Chow also found the combined tourism market of Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau in 2017 was valued at 1.1 trillion yuan (US$170 billion), or one-fifth of the nation’s total, and he expected it would grow by double digits in coming years – assuming the Covid-19 pandemic subsided and the expansion of the bay area’s high-speed train network was completed.

The central government’s blueprint, meanwhile, lays out a multi-destination tourism initiative.

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“Hong Kong must go for high-end tourists, who, for example, can come from overseas to Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District for an opera or a performance, and then cross the border for exploration,” Chow said. “But the city has to first restore its image among its biggest group of visitors, mainlanders, following the social unrest.”

There were 14.2 per cent fewer mainland visitors visiting Hong Kong in 2019, when the anti-government protests rocked the city. Still, they accounted for 78 per cent of Hong Kong’s 55.91 million tourist arrivals that year. All tourist arrivals, however, dried up in 2020 due to global pandemic-related lockdowns.

The plans for the culture and tourism hub call for the establishment of an intercity sporting event featuring dragon boat racing, traditional lion dance and martial arts, and for tours highlighting calligraphy, photography and performing arts across the bay area.

They also seek to turn Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou into a hub for international cruises and yachts, and to promote road trips along the bay area’s coast.

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The Hong Kong government, for its part, has voiced its support for the measures, with the Tourism Board saying through a spokeswoman that the bay area cultural and tourism hub would be a focal point of the city’s travel development plan.

The spokeswoman said Hong Kong would seek to make itself a centre for international meetings, conferences and exhibitions under the banner of the Greater Bay Area, which would attract overseas business travellers and motivate them to have excursions across the border.

Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing lauded the new directive, which placed a strong emphasis on leveraging Hong Kong’s public leisure infrastructure.

Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing has welcomed the bay area tourism initiative. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing has welcomed the bay area tourism initiative. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

“Hong Kong could play a key role in engaging Western artists to exhibit their work and for international musicians to host concerts in the city,” he said, adding that the city would, by then, be home to the West Kowloon Cultural District, the sports arena at Kai Tak, and the shopping and arts hub near the airport.

However, Yiu admitted that Hong Kong “has a long way to go” in nurturing talents with a deep understanding and appreciation of traditional Chinese arts.

“Sad to say, talent is the part where Hong Kong is lacking,” Yiu said. “In the mainland, youth have a deep understanding of Chinese history and culture, while in Hong Kong we still need to motivate them to get interested in it.”

Freddy Yip Hing-ning, president of the Hong Kong Travel Agent Owners Association said the central government’s long-term role for the city in the Greater Bay Area was to be its core for transport and aviation.

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Given the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the travel sector, Yip said he was hopeful that regional tourism to the bay area would recover more swiftly than long-haul travel over the next decade.

“In the future, once the pandemic has ended, people from Southeast Asia or Europe would be interested in joining a package tour to Hong Kong and visiting the new museums,” he said. “If the cross-border visas for international travellers are eased, then it could attract more people to visit the bay area to get exposed to Chinese culture.”

But to ensure the success of Beijing’s plan, creative synergies need to be developed organically, according to Brian King, associate dean of the school of hospitality and tourism management at PolyU.

“It cannot just be top down,” King said. “It’s much more about creating a healthy environment for initiatives to emerge, so young people in start-ups and artists doing creative things can cluster together.”

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