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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luring Tourists to the New Hong Kong




The British have left and so have the tourists. Hong Kong, usually Asia's top destination, has experienced a slump in tourism since Britain handed the colony back to China, at the stroke of midnight June 30 this year.


The glare of the media focus has pushed Hong Kong off many visitors' itineraries. The sight of the Chinese People's Liberation Army taking up residence in the city-center barracks was not the best publicity its tourist industry has ever had. More significantly, many Asian holiday makers are grounded, as currency devaluation takes the growl out of the tiger economies.


Hong Kong's gloom though is the travelers' cheer as the fight to boost tourism means cut-rate deals are widely available.


Travel and tourism are the city's biggest foreign exchange earners, and the Hong KongTourist Association, or HKTA, is working hard to lure visitors back. From the moment you land they'll bombard you with forests of useful maps and guides, and short of taking you out for dinner there's not much they won't do.


The HKTA bumf includes booklets containing cash coupons worth HK$7,600 ($982). Each coupon is worth HK$100 and one coupon can be used for every HK$500 spent. Head for the HKTA office at the airport to pick up your booklet.


From Moscow, grab a seat on the right-hand side and get ready for the incredible landing at Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport. Pilots regard it as one of the world's most difficult approaches. You can peer through apartment windows as the plane weaves its way through the Kowloon high-rise buildings and down onto a narrow runway stretching into the harbor.


The airport is on the Kowloon peninsula, part of the Chinese mainland. Ferries and cross-harbor tunnels link the peninsula to Hong Kong Island. Although Hong Kong now refers to the whole 1,078 square kilometer territory, it is technically just the 70 square kilometer island on the south side of the harbor. The British flag first flew there Jan. 26, 1841, and the following year the island was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Nanking. The treaty ended the so-called Opium War, fought to preserve Britain's lucrative drugs trade with China. Opium was legal in the territory right up until 1940.


The moment you arrive in Hong Kong the energy is tangible. Everyone is in a hurry. Trade and commerce move at a frenetic pace. The harbor is never idle, and construction goes on around the clock, with a fascinating mixture of modern techniques, and flimsy-looking bamboo scaffolding, supporting even the tallest structures.


If you're not used to Cantonese, the language and Hong Kongers themselves can seem as brusque as the buzz of city life. The ever-thoughtful HKTA have introduced a campaign to encourage locals to smile more at the gweilos, or foreign devils.


This devil has found little ill will in locals' attitude and a lot of eager hospitality.


Since dawn broke July 1 very little has really changed in Hong Kong. The Chinese flag now flies beside Hong Kong's own emblem, but Chinese soldiers are rarely seen outside their headquarters, still oddly called the Prince of Wales Barracks.


Relief seems to be the most palpable emotion after the hand-over and most Hong Kongers have kept their heads down and concentrated on what they are good at: making money.


"The Hong Kong handshake" (exchanging business cards) is a reflex in this business-minded city. Sit down by an old man taking his caged bird for a walk, and you're likely to have as fluent a discussion on Hang Seng instability or market volatility as with any Wall Street analyst.


With the world's highest per capita ownership of mobile phones part of the echoing sound of city life here is the shrill sound of Hong Kongers doing business.


Hong Kong means "fragrant harbor," and its deep sheltered waters have helped make it the world's busiest container port. But the real fragrance comes from the pungent odor of the dried-fish markets in Western district, the herbalists' stores in Sheung Wan, and burning incense in a thousand doorway altars.


Get your bearings in the territory from Victoria Peak, 554 meters above sea level. The Peak Tram, an ancient funicular railway leaves for the peak from behind the striking Bank of China building which dominates central Hong Kong with 70 stories of geometric steel and glass, topped with a pair of chopstick-like masts.


From the peak, Hong Kong island spreads out before you, the busy harbor teeming with ferries and barges, and the rugged hills beyond, marking the boundary of the Kowloon peninsula. Much of the central district is reclaimed land -- the British actually returned 24 square kilometers more territory than they grabbed in 1846.


Skyscrapers perch perilously on the slopes and with land at a premium, few old buildings remain. Hemmed in amid the modern high-rise buildings in the center is the few pockets of colonial architecture such as Flagstaff House, the former residence of the British commander-in-chief, now a museum of tea ware. Nearby, Government House stands empty since the July 1 British departure while the Gothic cream and white St. John's Cathedral glimmers in the heat as the songs of tropical birds flutter from the park.


But between Hollywood Road and Queen's Road there is the older Chinese world of narrow old lanes and meandering alleys, where outdoor stalls serve up bowls of steaming noodles and street markets overload the brain with sights and sounds. Old ladies in straw hats crouch to peel water chestnuts, and pick through baskets of bean sprouts. Fishmongers with massive cleavers act out their own theater, filleting fish so fresh that it twitches.


Step back and you can see both the old and new Hong Kong together. A vivid example of this is the many festivals throughout the year. Time your visit for the Chinese New Year on Jan. 28, when the Year of the Tiger will be welcomed in.


Hong Kong is not just for urbanites. Despite being one of the most densely populated places on earth it still has some wonderfully unspoiled countryside and beaches. A bunch of well-marked trails start at the entrance to Park View, an expensive condominium on the hilltop above Happy Valley. Head into the country park to wander among lakes teeming with fish and turtles, and swarms of multicolored butterflies.


From the peak you can take in Hong Kong's north and south shores in a glance, and appreciate the varied landscapes. In the south, Jumbo, the world's largest floating restaurant lies at anchor in Aberdeen, an ancient fishing port. At night the 80-meter, pagoda-style vessel lights up like a Christmas tree.


Along the coast from Aberdeen is Repulse Bay, Hong Kong's most popular beach resort, where an expensive apartment complex has gained prominence through its eye-catching centerpiece: a huge hole.


Construction work is governed by the science of feng shui which aims to avoid upsetting the elements. The feng shui expert ruled that the Water Dragon that lived in the hills above the development would get angry if it couldn't fly down to the sea so seven floors disappeared to leave a gap for the Dragon to fly through.


If you fly down to the sea, check which beaches are designated for swimming. Floating barriers keep sharks at bay, but more remote beaches are not protected. Last year there were two separate incidents of shark attack.


The Chinese love gambling, but there are no official casinos in Hong Kong. Police occasionally raid a triad-run gambling den, but they turn a blind eye to surreptitious bets on Mah Jong. The only legal gambling is at the Happy Valley horse races.


The atmosphere on a Wednesday night at the races is electric, as thousands pack the enormous modern stadium. For only HK$10 you can stand right by the fence to watch the jockeys canter past on the brilliantly floodlit track. Unsuccessful betting slips shower down from the stand like a ticker tape parade at the end of each race, and the betting is always fast and furious. The club's 1995-96 season turnover was $10.5 billion -- more than the entire gross domestic product of some countries.


The HKTA offers special Come Racing packages with admission to the Visitor's Box in the stand, drinks, buffet supper, guide and transport for HK$530 per person.


An absurd tourism statistic claims that Hong Kong has "more tourist attractions per square kilometer than any other city in the world," but that is missing the point. Hong Kong's charm is its atmosphere and its stunning contrasts.


Shopping


Few will leave Hong Kong without a serious shop. You could restock your house if you had the time, money and the bargaining savvy.


For a suit, head to Modell Fashions at 9 Humphrey Avenue in Kowloon. Speak to Andy (Tel. (852) 2368-2132) for a good quote. If you want the aging president look, try Ascot Chang's in the Princes Building (Shop 143, Tel. (852) 2523-3663), which boasts former U.S. president George Bush as a customer.


Hong Kong's days as a bargain basement for electronic goods is no longer the case but a careful buyer can still find a good deal. Star House (3 Salisbury Road, Tsimshatsui) is packed full of good computer stores and The Golden Centre at 146-152 Fuk Wah Street in Shamshuipo is also worth checking out.


Shanghai Tang on Pedder street in the center is a must and it offers tasteful but expensive one-stop shopping for clothes and sophisticated souvenirs.


Cheaper, but sometimes verging on gold-dragon-tacky, is China Arts & Crafts on the ground floor of the nearby Princes Building. They also have a large branch in Kowloon, opposite the Star ferry terminal.


For cameras visit Photo Scientific in Central (6 Stanley Street, Tel. (852) 2522-1903), not the stores in Kowloon which are notorious tourist traps.


Where to Stay


Hotels range from the super sleek Mandarin Oriental (HK$3,180+15% for service for a deluxe harbor-view double room) through medium range hotels like the Luk Kwok (HK$1,880+15% for service) to budget hotels like the YMCA International House (HK$880+10% for service).


Backpacker options like Chungking House (HK$437 for a double) or shared dorm rooms in the same rather grungy block mean there's something in every price range.


No prices are fixed though, so try and negotiate a better rate: ask about corporate discounts, or rates for more than one night.


Contact the Hong Kong Hotels Association for more details. Tel. (852) 2383-8380, fax. 2362-2383, or e-mail them at hkhahrc@att.net.hk.


Where to Eat


From street stalls to high class cuisine Hong Kong is a gourmand's delight.


One favorite is the Dim Sum at City Hall (near the Star Ferry) with its panoramic harbor view at its second floor restaurant. It's popular, so be there early, and don't be surprised if you've got to line up. Waitresses wheel round trolleys stacked with baskets of steamed dumplings stuffed with bean paste, pork, prawns and vegetables.


Borshch is surprisingly found in many restaurants in Hong Kong, a legacy of Russian ?migr?s who fled the Russian Revolution. For non-Russian eating head for the Yin King Lau (113 Lockhart Rd., Wanchai) for Beijing and Szechuan style cuisine.


The Luk Yu Tea House (26 Stanley St., near Lan Kwai Fong) is an old-style elegant Cantonese establishment, while nearby Wing Wah Lane (just off D'Aguilar Street) Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian restaurants offer cheap open-air eating.


The HKTA publishes a useful and bulky guide for the true devotee. Try their Web page at http://www.hkta.org for more information.


Getting There


There are direct flights from Moscow on Transaero and Aeroflot, and stopover routes with most of the major European and Asian airlines.


Prices are around the $750 mark for Aeroflot with Transaero up to $100 cheaper.


Try Carlson Vacations (Tel. 935-8601) or AC Travel (Tel. 956-3807). Carlson also offers a seven-night package deal at a four-star hotel for $1,500. Book immediately for any chance of a ticket before Christmas. Visas: no visa requirement for tourists from EEC countries, Canada, and the United States. Russians need a visa obtainable from the Chinese Embassy. Tel. 938-2006.