While Hong Kong’s travel sector has been hit hard as tourists from overseas stay away, they are making up for the drop in business as locals pack their bags and leave.
Hong Kong’s overall tourist arrivals plunged by as much as two-thirds in November, according to government data.
However, like the emerging upward swing in outbound trips as Hongkongers seek an escape overseas during the festive season from the incessant social turmoil at home, the city’s travel agencies have also found a lifeline as many executives and professionals have been packing their bags and leaving the city for good.
In the past, an exodus would always follow a major crisis or uncertainties engulfing Hong Kong, be it the collapse of talks between London and Beijing in the 1980s delineating the territory’s post-handover course, or the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in June 1989.
In the midst of the current unrest ignited by a now-retracted China extradition bill, many Hongkongers, disillusioned with the city’s political future after more than two decades under Chinese rule, are determined to leave with their families and they have no plans to return, according to some travel agency managers and immigration consultants.
The trend is also borne out by the noticeable spike in the number of applications for Certificate of No Criminal Conviction received by the Hong Kong police since June, the beginning of the mass protests and pitched battles between demonstrators and constables due to the much-deplored extradition bill.
The police issued more than 31,000 such certificates, necessary when one takes up residence overseas, between June and mid-December, a 35% jump year-on-year.
While the deep-pocketed lay their eyes on destinations from Taipei to Toronto and San Francisco to Sydney, where there are sizable diasporas of Hong Kong emigrants, some wage earners and job starters are considering off-the-beaten-track nations like Malaysia, Greece and Portugal, lured by lower thresholds and less application red tape.
For instance, non-EU applicants can invest €350,000 in real estate, a modest lump sum compared with the requirements in Canada or Australia, to qualify for the right of abode, and they can then get Portuguese nationality after six years.
An applicant is only required to be psychically in the country for seven to 14 days in the initial years, and they can take their spouse, parents and children without the need to fill out separate applications.
Hong Kong papers report that travel agencies are rushing to cash in on the demand by launching guided tours to these countries, with week-long itineraries packed with visits to not only the tourist attractions, but also local real estate firms, schools and healthcare facilities. Some even offer full tour fare reimbursement if one’s subsequent application is successful.
One travel group has already received 70 inquiries, with places being snapped up, after it launched a themed tour to Lisbon and Porto departing during the Chinese New Year break at the end of January, according to the Ming Pao Daily.
Another immigration agency has also been inundated by inquiries with a five-fold increase in applications since June, compared with the same period a year ago, and Taiwan, Malaysia, Portugal and Ireland are among the most popular destinations.
Professor Paul Yip, Associate Dean of the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Social Sciences, said he was particularly worried that at a time when the city’s lure had largely waned amid the protracted protests, the wave of exits and the vote of no confidence by local professionals and middle-class families would deal a crippling blow to the city’s competitiveness.
Yip said that unlike the numerous Hongkongers who, after obtaining their Canadian or Australian citizenship, returned to the city for career advancement spurred by the booming economy and positive outlook for the future in the 1990s and 2000s, the worsening political climate had been a “push factor” and not too many who have already left or were planning to do so would miss their home city too much.