Hong Kong looks to strengthen leisure appeal

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HONG KONG -- While locals await the Disney theme park scheduled to open here in 2005, tourism officials are busy crafting new promotions, courting travel trade conventions and gearing up other projects to boost Hong Kong's appeal as a leisure destination.

Notably, five new tourism "nodes" in the territory have been designated for investment over five years in the interest of "enhancing existing facilities and providing new attractions," Tung Chee Hwa, chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, said at a recent meeting with foreign travel trade representatives here.

As reported, the territory won its bid to host the ASTA World Travel Congress in 2004, the first time the event will be held in a foreign city since Strasbourg, France, in 1999. Encouraged by that coup, Hong Kong now is pursuing other U.S. travel trade events.

These tourism developments are part of a larger effort that encompasses port and rail expansion, quality of life improvements and legislative moves to ensure freedom and autonomy in government and business, officials said.

Capitalistic Hong Kong -- which was returned to the People's Republic of China in 1997 -- faces new challenges posed by competing Asian destinations, including a vibrant Chinese mainland, noted Rebecca Lai, tourism commissioner for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Indeed, rumors at the trade gathering had neighboring mainland China city Shenzhen courting Universal Studios to build a theme park to compete head-on with Disney's Hong Kong effort.

But Clara Chong, director of the Hong Kong Tourist Board (HKTB), dismissed the story. "We hear rumors like that all the time, and if our whole future relies solely on Disney, then I think we're in deep trouble," she said.

Chong noted that competition comes not only from China but from attractions in Thailand, Singapore and Japan. Instead, she added, the city must look at its proximity to the mainland as an opportunity.

"Hong Kong is the gateway to China, and we must focus on strengthening that position," she said.

To that end, Tung announced that visas for visits to the mainland would be more easily granted to the many foreigners visiting Hong Kong who would like to join several package tours to China's nearby Pearl River Delta.

The ASTA effect

In addition, Chong and her team are working on mainland China itineraries for travel agent delegates attending the 2004 ASTA congress.

"We'll work very closely with provincial tourist boards to ensure people coming for the congress have as many options as possible," she said.

The HKTB expects some 5,000 congress attendees to spend about $1,410 each -- or $7.3 million total -- during their stay, but the cumulative economic effect could be far greater, Chong said.

"ASTA is more important than any usual convention, because travel agents are our front-line marketing mouthpieces overseas," she said. "If each one of them has a good experience and then sends 100 or even 10 visitors back, we're talking phenomenal numbers."

On the same note, the HKTB is submitting bids for upcoming conventions to be held by AAA, American Express, Carlson Wagonlit and the Virtuoso consortium.

New developments

Hong Kong officials said they hope to have many of the tourism infrastructure upgrades ready in time for the 2004 ASTA congress.

The Yam O area of Lantau Island -- site of the new Chep Lap Kok Airport -- will be developed and integrated with the nearby 112-foot Big Buddha statue, the Tung Chung cable-car system and the Tai O Village cultural attraction, in addition to the new Hong Kong Disneyland.

North of Kowloon, the countryside and harbor at Sai Kung will be developed as a water-sports resort center -- more than 40% of Hong Kong is rural country, said Chong -- while a new "culture belt" will integrate museums and performance spaces in the Tsim Sha Tsui district, with new venues in reclaimed west Kowloon. Construction also will begin on a second cruise ship terminal in southeast Kowloon.

On Hong Kong Island proper, a new heritage, entertainment and dining district will radiate from the renovated Central Police Station to the Government House, St. John's Cathedral, Hollywood Road and the Lan Kwai Fong corridor.

Finally, the Ocean Park theme park will be integrated into an Aberdeen Harbor attraction that could include a trendy Fisherman's Wharf, featuring al fresco dining and specialty retail venues.

For the long haul

Although known primarily as a shopping and dining mecca, Hong Kong will continue its "City of Life: Hong Kong Is It!" campaign well into the Chinese New Year, which begins Feb. 12.

Highlights of the effort, which will be heavily promoted to long-haul markets such as the U.S., include the Hong Kong Lights Up program -- during which much of the city's waterfront skyline is lighted with festive holiday signage -- set to run until Feb. 26; the International Chinese New Year Parade, scheduled for Feb. 12, and the Hong Kong Flower Extravaganza, from March 4 to 17, which is a new prelude to the annual Hong Kong Flower Show.

Future events also include the City of Life Street Carnival, an open-air shopping, dining and performance event slated to begin in December.

"Shopping and dining are integral to any destination, but I don't imagine a visitor will fly 15 hours because we're having a big sale," said Chong. "It's experiences like the New Year Parade that they go home and talk about."

Accordingly, the planned citywide Mega Hong Kong Sale set for July and August will be promoted mainly to near-in markets such as Taiwan and Japan.

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