Hong Kong saw travel boom in the first half of 2011, with overall arrivals surging 15%, to 20 million visitors, and visits from the Americas up 6%. Destinations Editor Kenneth Kiesnoski discussed the performance of the American market with Bill Flora, the Hong Kong Tourism Board's director for the U.S.
Travel Weekly: Hong Kong's overall arrivals are booming. How is the U.S. performing for you?
Bill Flora: The good thing about the U.S. is that, in difficult economic times, the market is still reasonably resilient [and] there are a lot of destinations around the world ... that aren't faring quite as well [as Hong Kong]. So we're really pleased to be seeing the level of growth that we are. [The growth] is coming off of a reasonably good base: We were up about 10.5% last year, also. We're expecting we'll be able to hold or increase [these] numbers ... the rest of the year.
In TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice 2011 awards, we were named one of the world's top destinations. [Editor's note: Hong Kong placed first in Asia in the 2011 competition.]
TW: Do Hong Kong's arrivals trends now mirror those for the Chinese mainland?
Flora: The interesting thing ... is that over 90% of those who go to Hong Kong are taking a multidestination trip, with mainland China being the leading place they go. What we try to do is position Hong Kong as an indispensable part of any Asian itinerary. We work very much in partnership with China and Macau on many itineraries because for long-haul travelers from the U.S., it's very much a multi-destination game.
TW: So you attract the same demographic, as well?
Flora: It's a very upscale demographic. It tends to be baby boomers with annual household incomes of $100,000 to $150,000-plus. The other thing we're seeing is the growth of what we call "contemporary sophisticate" travelers, who are affluent, younger couples in the 35-plus [age range] with the same [income].
TW: Do Americans visit Hong Kong simply because it's on their checklists, or are there specific things that attract them?
Flora: I think Hong Kong offers two very different things that are pluses to people who visit worldwide destinations. The first is sophistication. For example, in terms of our dining and wine scenes, we're now the No. 1 city for wine in, and the culinary capital of, Southeast Asia. Something that's becoming more of a draw out of the U.S. is the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival. This year, it takes place Oct. 27 to 30. We like to bill it as an epicurean festival with one of the most incredible venues in the world, because it takes place directly on the west Kowloon waterfront with views of Victoria Harbor and the Hong Kong skyline. Last year, it attracted 110,000 people, and this fall we're expecting even more. We're finding there's a lot of traction for this event in the U.S.
On the other hand, we offer a wide variety of cultural events and heritage. The theme we like to use for Hong Kong is that there's an adventure around every corner. You could be having dinner at a world-class restaurant, and then just around the corner you can visit a 200-year-old temple.
TW: Shanghai, in particular, increasingly offers a similar experience to Hong Kong. Is it a competitor or a partner?
Flora: When people go to China, they very seldom will go just to the mainland. Hong Kong is a destination people like to go to because of the East-meets-West aspect and the fact that English is commonly spoken as well as the sophisticated aspects such as the shopping available. So we think the multidestination approach is a very good formula that's working for us, particularly in regard to mainland China.
TW: Many think of Hong Kong as a densely urban place, but are you promoting "green" and nature-based experiences as well as sophisticated, city attractions?
Flora: That's one of the great hidden secrets of Hong Kong that we're really building upon now. One of the surprises is that about 70% of the land area is actually green. There's a variety of beaches and about 250 outlying islands. Another natural attraction that's resonating with consumers is our new Hong Kong National Geopark, with an array of stunning volcanic formations. We're known stereotypically for our incredible urban skyline, but we also have beautiful green countryside.
TW: Any new attractions or accommodations coming online soon?
Flora: Yes, the first is the new Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, which is the tallest hotel in the world. It's on the 102nd to 118th floors of the new International Commerce Centre building in Kowloon. They have a very cool 118th-floor bar and infinity pool, so it's a stunning experience. And within the same building you'll find Sky100, which is a wraparound observation area offering 360-degree views of Hong Kong.
We're also going to be doing a "first" in U.S. tourism marketing. We're going to be partnering with Macau and the Shaoguan area of Guangdong province on a nationally distributed TV show on PBS. This will be our second effort with [travel journalist] Richard Bangs and his "Richard Bangs' Adventures With Purpose" series, with whom last year we did the Emmy Award-nominated "Quest for the Dragon" program. This year it will be called "Quest for Harmony." We're shooting in the first three weeks of August and running it next February and March. It's a great way for us to get broad-based exposure and acknowledges the fact we are multidestination marketers.
TW: Is the HKTB still partnering strongly with the trade in the U.S.?
Flora: Yes, we're still focusing strongly on our core of loyal U.S. travel agents who book long-haul travel to Asia.
We are very supportive of that community; in particular, we're very supportive of Virtuoso and the Signature Travel Network.