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Monday, Dec 04, 2023

‘Hong Kong’s travel sector faces staff shortage ahead of planned border reopening’

‘Hong Kong’s travel sector faces staff shortage ahead of planned border reopening’

Travel sector needs government subsidies to recover from almost three years of Covid-19 curbs, industry leaders say.

Hong Kong’s tourism sector has struggled to secure more manpower and coaches ahead of a proposed full reopening of the mainland Chinese border next month and needs government subsidies to recover from almost three years of Covid-19 travel curbs, industry leaders have said.

Ricky Tse Kam-ting, founding president of the Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators Association, on Monday said his own business before the pandemic had focused on trips for Southeast Asian tourists and maintained more than 100 employees.

Now the travel agency had fewer than 10 members of staff, including several coach drivers, he added.

Travellers in Hong Kong wait to cross the border into mainland China.

“I’m now asking my [former] employees to come back to work. January and February are still the low seasons for Southeast Asian travellers, but I hope things will get better in March,” he said.

On Saturday, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu said Beijing had approved a plan to reopen the shared border following his first duty visit to meet state leaders and hoped to have the process finalised by mid-January.

But Tse urged the government to roll out relief measures from next month to help support the pandemic-battered travel sector and boost its productivity.

“Nowadays no bank will lend money to travel agencies. But we need capital to hire people, buy laptops and other equipment, as well as at least HK$80,000 to HK$100,000 [US$10,247 to US$12,809] to repair each coach,” he said.
School and tourist buses parked at a site in Kwai Chung in February.

“It’s very costly to reboot our business and we cannot wait for the government’s next budget in February.”

Figures from the city’s Tourism Board showed that 80,524 travellers visited Hong Kong in October, including 47,607 from the mainland and 14,368 from Southeast Asia. The total figure represented just 1.6 per cent of the monthly average of 5.4 million in 2018.

The number of travellers coming to Hong Kong has dropped in recent years amid a period of social unrest in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic. The city in 2018 logged some 65.1 million arrivals, before dropping to 55.9 million the year after.

Amid the pandemic, the total number of travellers fell to 91,398 last year from the 3.6 million recorded in 2020.

But the city logged more than 443,000 arrivals from January to November this year, with the figure coming on the back of a gradual easing of the city’s stringent entry regime.

Ahead of a possible easing of cross-border travel curbs next month, lawmaker Perry Yiu Pak-leung, who represents the tourism sector, called on authorities to set a clearer timeline for the policy to allow airlines, coach operators and travel agencies adequate time to prepare.

“The travel industry is also facing a shortage of manpower and capital, and our coaches also need time for repair and maintenance,” he said. “I hope the government will give us enough time to prepare, and offer us subsidies.”

Paul Leung Yiu-lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Inbound Travel Association, said the industry’s manpower shortage could only be resolved if the government was able to reassure tourism workers that the opening up was a permanent move.

“We cannot really ask employees to come back by paying them more. The government needs to give them confidence that the policy will not be backtracked after two months,” he said.

Leung added that he hoped the city’s testing requirements for overseas travellers could be scrapped to help encourage more Southeast Asian tourists to visit Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland.

“People from places like Indonesia don’t just want to have fun in Hong Kong, they also like mainland cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen,” he said.

Under the current entry regime, inbound arrivals must undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at the airport, followed by a second on their third day in the city and five days of rapid antigen tests (RATs). Anyone who tests positive is required to undergo isolation.

“But very few destinations in the region are requiring travellers to do PCR tests and RATs. This has deterred people from coming to Hong Kong, and caused trouble and inconvenience for those who arrived,” he said.

Industry leaders also said they hoped more transport services between Hong Kong and Macau would resume soon, allowing more travellers to visit both cities.

The high-speed ferry service between the two cities is currently suspended but travellers can still reach either place by bus via the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.

The number of shuttle bus trips from Hong Kong to Macau via the bridge was increased to 10, while return journeys were raised to nine.


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