Exclusive: Hong Kong commerce chief unfazed by trend of residents heading to mainland China for leisure, brushes aside concerns of businesses, saying fad will pass

Hongkongers will gradually become “fed up” with taking short leisure breaks across the border and opt to stay and spend in the city instead, the city’s commerce minister has said, brushing aside concerns that residents’ post-Covid travel trends are hurting local businesses.

But Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Algernon Yau Ying-wah said Hong Kong should work harder to lure tourists, while noting high airfares and hotel expenses remained major constraints hindering the growth of visitor numbers.

Yau was speaking exclusively to the Post before heading to Shanghai on Friday to support 300 Hong Kong companies joining the China International Import Expo, which opens on Sunday for the first time since the country dropped its zero-Covid policy.

Commerce minister Algernon Yau is part of a government delegation heading to Shanghai. Photo: Jonathan Wong

He pledged to help Hong Kong firms better penetrate mainland Chinese markets, saying a new government task force would address e-commerce pain points for merchants – ranging from logistics and taxation to promotions.

Hong Kong’s economy continued to recover in the third quarter but growth has been sluggish, with the retail, food and catering sectors complaining that residents’ changed spending patterns were hitting business.

More locals have opted to head north for weekend leisure after the lifting of Covid-related travel restrictions and with Shenzhen ramping up efforts to attract Hong Kong consumers.

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But in the wide-ranging interview, the commerce minister dismissed local businesses’ concerns by saying the trend would be temporary.

“It’s natural for people to be hungry going out after Covid-19. But after a while, they will be fed up going up north,” Yau said.

“People will say what’s new? Nothing new any longer … [They] will settle down and then the situation will become normal. I don’t really worry too much about this situation in the long run.”

The trend caught the attention of Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, who acknowledged that the growing number of residents crossing the border was a fresh problem for the city’s economic recovery.

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For example, during the “golden week” National Day holiday last month, 600,000 mainland Chinese visitors arrived in the city over the first four days, but 1 million Hongkongers went elsewhere, with most heading north.

Yau, former CEO of start-up Greater Bay Airlines, said the city should focus on luring long-haul tourists both from the mainland and overseas, although he conceded that high airfares and hotel expenses remained big constraints hindering the growth of incoming tourists before a manpower crunch could be eased.

“Why just focus on Guangdong province? … What about those from Shanghai, Beijing, or other places? [They] are coming down by air, and they won’t be able to go back to that hometown overnight,” he said.

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Yau, offering his take on Hong Kong’s economic outlook, said it would not be “as bad as people imagined”, as he saw promising interest in investment by businesses in the Middle East and Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries.

He also said the ongoing “Night Vibes Hong Kong” campaign was having a positive “psychological effect” on residents, inducing them to stay out longer and spend locally.

Yau is a member of the government delegation, which includes the city’s leader who will fly to Shanghai on Saturday for the expo’s opening ceremony.

“There will be 300 Hong Kong companies joining and having booths over there and showing our strength in different products and services. So we’ve been going there for support and there will be a lot of promotions,” he said.

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Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu and finance chief Chan will also attend. They will deliver speeches during the event to promote Hong Kong’s role as an important channel between the country and the world.

Lee, in his recent policy address, announced the setting up of the interdepartmental E-commerce Development Task Force, led by Yau, to help local enterprises eyeing the mainland market.

Yau said he was considering setting up advisory groups within the task force to gauge the business sector’s views.

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