Will half a million free tickets save Hong Kong from tunnel vision?

The old-style junk boat is one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist attractions, and can usually be seen on the Victoria Harbour. — AFP

With Hong Kong opening up and quarantines lifted, I wondered what might be in store for visitors to this fine city, my home of almost 40 years. Travellers will be glad to learn that masks of all colours remain popular and are mandatory. This protects arrivals from toxic garlic fumes that can be particularly incapacitating at close quarters on the MTR.

There are other courtesies. In some countries you might get your hands and feet washed before entering a shrine. In Hong Kong, great reverence is accorded to tonsils and nasal passages. These get coddled and swabbed with religious intensity for a few days, starting with arrival at the airport where new washbasins bear the cryptic message: “Do not enter”.

The city has thought of it all but the goodies and outreach don’t end here.

Near my home, signs point out, “Wild pigs are monitored and protected through surveillance cameras”. Residents are urged not to feed porcine friends who are rampaging through residential neighbourhoods nowadays, having knocked over and rooted through garbage bins along remote nature trails. Feeding them pork BBQ sausages would be really bad manners and insensitive. But could you end their fruitless foraging by cooking and eating them in an Asterix and Obelix-style wild boar feast? This is a grey area.

Sometime next year as many as 500,000 free air tickets are to be distributed to encourage a more civilised stampede to the city’s undernourished malls. I visited one fancy outlet for a quick browse before the onslaught, my interest piqued by a pair of faux-leather shoes. A cheerful sales lady waltzed up.

Travellers entering Hong Kong still need to undergo a Covid-19 swab test upon arrival at the airport or port. — AZUR PHAM/PexelsTravellers entering Hong Kong still need to undergo a Covid-19 swab test upon arrival at the airport or port. — AZUR PHAM/Pexels“This is vegan,” she offered, with an emphatic smile. Without those half million tourists I felt the pressure keenly and moved on wondering whether I had missed an opportunity to savour simmered sneakers with some spicy dan dan noodles?

How these tickets are to be distributed and the recipients selected remains a mystery but the airport has been presented this onerous task because, well, it’s an airport.

Given a visitor count of almost 56 million in 2019, this handout is a drop in the ocean. It follows the supply-led model for tourism growth rather than a robust demand-driven one. Were 56 million people to suddenly arrive it would be no party for health workers and screeners. That’s a lot of tonsils to welcome.

Yet, the 0 + 3 model (zero quarantine with three days of self-monitoring) seems set to continue for a while.

The only way the half million handout might help kick-start the moribund economy, would be to get everyone to fly in during a single targeted period – for a shopping sale or a high profile event, thus concentrating visitor expenditures. That might make a small impression and get some cash moving through the city’s veins.

As a former boss dinned into us, for impactful marketing, “Don’t spatter it everywhere like a bird ... drop it all in one huge steaming pile, like an elephant.” That’s the way to get noticed. He is right.

Then Saturday dawned with lovely crisp weather and a hint of inter. I thought I might have a spin around Hong Kong. For a lark I’d do it on a budget. I mean, it can be done. Even in this city. Visitors would need some less pinching options.

Whoops, the petrol tank was empty ($$$) ... then it was through one of those long spacey tunnels so popular with engineers here. Roads don’t wind leisurely up mountains any more with thoughtful scenic sports. They punch through them (so, more $$$).

The lady at the toll booth beamed and waved, delighted to receive the exact amount. Then it was into the invigorating green of the wide open New Territories countryside but ... whoops, I’d missed my turn with Google agitatedly urging, “slight left, SLIGHT LEFT”. This, at a major crossroads. How do you do a “slight left” at a major four-street intersection that forms a perfect cross?

Then, suddenly, it all looked familiar again. I relaxed. Until I realised I was headed back the way I had come to the very the same tunnel, the expensive 4.5km one bored through the hill.

There were no exit ramps (more $$$). I shot out the other end, fully awake now sans caffeine, eyes peeled, trying to find a U-turn as 18-wheel lorries rumbled murderously to my left and right. A long detour on Tsing Yi Island found me heading north to the New Territories yet again with renewed vigour, via the very same tunnel where the turnstile lady’s eyes grew saucer-wide as she spotted me again. She was frowning now (more $$$).

The Fung Lok Wai fish ponds bordering China suddenly appeared out of nowhere after some “slight” lefts and rights. As ever, it was a treat under crisp blue skies with a carpet of hyacinths stretching for miles across the water. Rows of photographers packing mighty lenses trained their cameras on the first pre-winter egrets and herons, all just specks to novice eyes. They ignored my iPhone 13 as I clicked away, equally heroically.

Grumpy dogs chased me, but that was FREE. Other dogs took a liking to me and displayed their clean white teeth and throaty bass in rustic greeting. I wondered if they had seen the be-kind-to-porcine-friends posters.

The bugs swarmed. I swatted them ... also FREE. But I sidestepped the generous cow poo buffet.

At the end of my trawl I returned to my car to find no parking ticket affixed to the windshield – an official hobby nowadays even deep in the marshes on rutted forgotten lanes. Hurrah! Savings. But there was that usurious tunnel to negotiate again and a toll booth lady on the verge of a breakdown.

Ah well, budget drives are for wimps. In Hong Kong we prefer tunnel vision, coddled tonsils and wild boar in argyle cardigans. Come visit.

Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, columnist and the editor of AsianConversations.com and SmartTravelAsia.com.

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