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Published: 00:25, May 26, 2022 | Updated: 10:19, May 26, 2022
Macao, Hong Kong must fundamentally rethink tourism trade
By Christine Loh
Published:00:25, May 26, 2022 Updated:10:19, May 26, 2022 By Christine Loh

Macao is Asia’s “Las Vegas”, with glitzy gaming resorts to attract tourists. It is the only place in China where gambling and casinos are legal. Prior to the pandemic, Macao hosted 2 million visitors on average every month, the bulk of which were from the Chinese mainland.

Macao’s history goes back to the 16th century as a Portuguese colonial trading post, where gambling was legalized in 1849 to raise revenue. Gambling-related tourism made up the bulk of its gross domestic product prior to the pandemic. Since 2013, Macao has surpassed Las Vegas in gaming revenue by a long stretch.

Nevertheless, the high risk for Macao has always been relying so much on one source of income, but diversification is not easy. The Chinese authorities are concerned about other activities associated with gambling — namely, money laundering, illegal betting, capital flight, corruption, and drugs. Beijing wants Macao to clean up its gambling industry, and the local government is tightening regulations.

Besides, tastes have changed. Surveys show mainland visitors are becoming more interested in nongambling activities. Thus, Macao wants nongambling elements to be “enhanced, enriched and diversified”.

The casinos are responding with makeovers by providing retail, conference, exhibition, entertainment, and food facilities. However, they have a long way to go to increase revenues substantially from these other activities.

The problem with just going for the traditional forms of tourism by providing hospitality, shopping, and food-and-beverage alongside entertainment on a big scale is that it runs counter to another growing national and global trend, with the rise of ecological civilization — a national mandate on achieving carbon neutrality.

In 2019, Hong Kong, a major business and finance center, had over 53 million visitors. It too won’t survive on being the old kind of shopping paradise where people come to “shop” and “eat” till “you drop”. Selling excess will become unfashionable in the era of ecological civilization. A more-familiar international term for this trend is “sustainability”.

Sustainability is about “people, planet, and profit”. As mainland residents, and also Asians, become wealthier, pursuing well-being is already a major business in terms of all kinds of health-related products and services. There is no reason why the hospitality aspects of visiting Macao and Hong Kong could not be infused with concepts and services that enhance physical and emotional health that combine the best that Eastern and Western cultures could offer.

It goes without saying that hotels must all be environmentally friendly in how they are built, retrofitted, operated, and managed without compromising on comfort. Many hotels are already adopting new practices, but hotels and the tourism industry can work together to take sustainability further and make it an attraction in itself.

The F&B sector lies at the heart of providing excitement in how food that is healthy, tasty, and comes in a range of prices can be prepared and consumed. Macao and Hong Kong have great chefs and restaurants — and some are already adopting sustainability principles, such as eliminating endangered species from their menus, offering “omni meat” that is lower-carbon but tasty and nutritious, and reducing food waste.

The food-tech industry is also expanding in Hong Kong, whereby growing food locally, including in high-rise buildings, and managing mariculture better, has great potential. Modernizing Chinese traditional foods, such as cakes and desserts, have seen a strong revival of old recipes, and the creation of new ones that avoid using chemicals. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see smart entrepreneurs figuring out new business models to make eating in Macao and Hong Kong even more exciting with sustainability and wellness themes.

As for entertainment, besides hosting big names for concerts and shows, technology enables us to bring the world’s amazing places and heritage to Macao and Hong Kong too.

The time will come when flying becomes much more expensive because of the need to decarbonize. A viable option is to bring to us via the virtual metaverse those places that would be hard to visit.

Take Venice, Italy. In 2023, visitors will have to register and pay a fee to go. Venice would rather have fewer visitors so that residents and those who do visit can enjoy the city more. In any event, there is only one Venice in the world, and we cannot all go. Even if we managed to get there, there is much to see, and few will be able to see everything.

The alternative is to see and experience Venice through the metaverse if the technology could be developed that can truly bring a new dimension to our human experience. We can do the same for many other places we cannot experience physically from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the fjords of Norway to the rainforests of Brazil, from the Galapagos to the Ordos Desert in China and to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. We cannot crowd these environmentally sensitive places even if we can afford it so they could be preserved. Can Macao provide such experiences as a major nongambling experience combined with wellness?

Can Hong Kong offer the kind of nature experience that is unique albeit on a smaller scale? Sailing, boating, and rowing are possible in Hong Kong. Mountaineering and rock climbing are exhilarating too. Hong Kong’s country and marine parks are amazing assets, although daily numbers to them will one day also need to be managed as they become increasingly popular.

We can also open our minds to the whole of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. Macao is partnering with Hengqin, an island in Zhuhai, so there is more land to think bigger. Hong Kong and Shenzhen will become better integrated through the Northern Metropolis plan that is designed to promote innovation and technology, as well as nature conservation, and healthy living.

The GBA is the economic thumping heart of South China. As government planners consider reindustrialization and to promote innovation and technology to take the economy to new heights, the importance of the environment has also been acknowledged in regional plans. What has yet to take center stage is sustainability in environmental, social, and economic terms.

There is no reason that the GBA cannot also be where environmental sustainability can be an overarching showcase since ecological civilization is a national mandate. Social sustainability must include the health and well-being of its people; that also includes arts and culture. South China has its unique history and heritage that should be of interest nationwide and internationally if we can find the voice and means to showcase them.

Economic sustainability requires the GBA’s major business sectors to find new ways to be profitable that are also environmentally and socially sustainable. Technology and innovation are means to aid entrepreneurs to achieve sustainability profitably.

Green shoots are emerging among entrepreneurs — enabling government policy may well be what is needed to spur growth at this critical time. In Hong Kong, the soon-to-be-formed Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau could reimagine sustainable tourism for the future.

The author is chief development strategist of the Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and a board member of CDP Worldwide, London.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.  

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