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Hong Kong Tells Residents to ‘Smile More’ as Government Tries to Revive Declining Tourism

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Hong Kong, the Chinese enclave that’s still struggling to revive its tourism economy post-pandemic and in the wake of a Beijing-influenced crackdown on civil liberties, has taken a new approach to wooing visitors: curbing its residents’ reputation for rudeness.

Earlier this week, the city government launched a new campaign to promote politeness. A “handful of black sheep,” culture, sports, and tourism secretary Kevin Yeung said, have made headlines for behavior that “tarnishes our image.” Unfriendly service staff at restaurants, once viewed as a charming hallmark of visiting Hong Kong, has increasingly been described as a turn-off for tourists, while rudeness topped the list of complaints about the city’s taxi industry in a survey last year.

Yeung announced on Monday a multi-department effort to reverse this reputation: the Education Bureau will promote programs to teach courtesy to students, while the Home Affairs Department will organize community activities to encourage friendliness, with potential reward schemes for “good performance.” Yeung also announced that authorities will share a series of video clips urging residents to “go the extra mile” to promote the city’s hospitality and to volunteer at visitor centers.

Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee backed the campaign during his regular press conference on Tuesday: “I ask you all to take part, to enhance visitors’ experience,” he said through an interpreter. “We should be more courteous, we should be more helpful, we should smile more, we should take the extra mile to promote Hong Kong’s hospitality so that Hong Kong will become a well-known place where visitors are welcome.”

It’s not the first time Hong Kong has tried to solve its perceived attitude problem—similar politeness campaigns were launched in the ’90s and early 2000s. But the city has struggled to see its pre-pandemic level of visitors return, even after the strict measures against inbound travel that were taken in effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were lifted and despite a slew of efforts—including hosting more than 200 “mega events,” from conferences to concerts to sports games—aimed at reestablishing itself as an international destination.

Data since 2002 from the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department and Tourism Board show that the city saw a peak of over 6.7 million visitor arrivals in January 2019. In April 2024, it saw less than half as many.

But it’s not just COVID that has kept people away. The decline in visitor numbers has coincided with Hong Kong’s shifting political landscape, with arrivals beginning to dip after major pro-democracy protests in 2019 and the subsequent quelling of dissent and of any anti-China sentiment in the city. (Some say simmering political tensions, along with other social and economic factors, is partly to blame for the brusqueness of Hong Kongers today.)

The profile of Hong Kong’s recent post-pandemic tourism has also largely changed from what it used to look like. In 2010, according to government statistics, 10% of visitors were from Europe and the Americas, while 63% were from mainland China. In 2023, 5% hailed from Europe and the Americas, while 79% came from mainland China. It doesn’t help that countries like the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. have issued travel warnings cautioning their citizens about “arbitrary” and “broad” enforcement of local laws. (Those from China now are also more cost-conscious than the predominantly rich Chinese tourists of the past.)

Yeung, the city’s tourism secretary, for his part, seems to be aware of the immense task before him: “The hospitality movement cannot solve all of society’s problems,” he said, “but the spirit is what counts.”

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