Business as Usual in Hong Kong, From a Tourist's Standpoint

Reed Travel Features executive editor Joe Rosen spent a few days in Hong Kong on a trip sponsored by Japan Airlines, the Regent Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Tourist Association. His report follows:

Reed Travel Features

HONG KONG -- Of course, the much-ballyhooed handover of Hong Kong to China was a royal pain for the incredible shrinking British empire, but now,

Although new restrictions on freedom of assembly and representative democracy in Hong Kong are making civil libertarians, journalists and more than a few ordinary citizens uneasy, commercial interests are in their ascendancy here -- a roller-coaster stock market notwithstanding -- and all's right with the world as far as business people are concerned.

One man who keeps his hand on the pulse of the traveling public is Thomas Axmacher, general manager of the top-of-the-line Hong Kong Regent hotel. Axmacher is upbeat about the future of tourism here. "It was only natural that there was a down period after the handover, especially considering that Hong Kong is coming off a record year, but bookings are up again," Axmacher said over dinner one night in the Regent's 1930s-style Club Shanghai. "The International Monetary Fund's meeting here in Hong Kong [in late September] was a vote of confidence, and the rest of it -- fears about what would happen after the handover -- is a nonstory."

Considered one of the finest hotels in the world and, certainly, a place where the capitalist ethic is as much a part of the opulent ambiance as the Asian art that graces its lobby, the Regent, like other properties here, experienced a downturn immediately following the handover frenzy.

For many, there was no place to go but home the morning after the night of the party of the year. In fact, despite a more than 10% surge in U.S. visitation through the months leading up to the handover, August figures were down 3.7% and hotel occupancies averaged only 66% compared with 89% in August 1996.

But if the period immediately following the festivities that saw Hong Kong become a Special Administrative Region of China was anticlimactic, tourism officials remain bullish about the tourism economy. "The fall looks strong, and we are very optimistic," said Mary Bakht, director, public relations, of the Hong Kong Tourist Association. "As people get used to the change [in sovereignty], tourism numbers will increase."

As for my own brief and episodic experiences walking the bustling streets here, riding the easily negotiable and spectacularly air-conditioned MTR (subway) and soaking up the sights and sounds from atop an open double-decker tram, Hong Kong remains an enticing and exotic destination for agents to sell.

Although the obvious reflections of British hegemony may have been dimmed or erased -- the police sport new uniforms, the post office boxes have been repainted, the Jockey Club is no longer "Royal" -- the crowded sidewalk markets in Tsim Tsat Tsui are as colorful as ever, the shops and outlets continue to thrive and the great restaurants still entice gourmets with clay-encrusted beggar's chicken, hand-pulled noodles and other delights.

"Hong Kong remains the exciting, accessible place it always was," said the HKTA's Bakht. You don't need a visa, and English is spoken. It is our challenge to get people on a plane to see it."

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