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China Boycott by Americans Hurting Hong Kong

September 17, 1989|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

HONG KONG — Kai Tak Airport, usually crowded with people and planes, suddenly seems manageable. It is now just crowded with planes. But where are the people?

There are no long lines at passport control. The cab ride from the airport to your hotel, often an ordeal, is a breeze. And the hotels, usually jammed to capacity, have more than enough rooms available for guests.

Stores on the Kowloon side, normally filled with bargain hunters, are advertising sales to attract customers.

Tourism to the British Crown Colony has dropped off, and the reasons are obvious. After the May unrest in China and the June 4 massacre in Tian An Men Square in Beijing, Americans have chosen not to go to China.

"If you think Hong Kong is empty," said one American tourist who recently returned from a trip to Beijing and Shanghai, "you should see China. We got up early one morning to go to the Great Wall to avoid the crowds, and when we got there, we were it."

Few Foreigners Traveling

Indeed, touring within China by foreigners, especially Americans, has almost evaporated.

"Usually," said one China tour operator, "Americans don't travel when they perceive a country is in trouble, because they get scared for their own safety. Not this time. When China had their trouble, no Americans were injured.

"Instead, the Americans who say they won't go to China now are saying it to make a statement that they won't support the Chinese government."

Within days of the Beijing killings, American cruise lines, tour operators and airlines reported massive cancellations. The drop-off was staggering. Airlines such as Northwest reported a 78% drop in bookings.

United reported similar no-shows. But Americans weren't the only ones to cancel. One Japan Air Lines DC-10 flying between Osaka and Beijing carried just nine passengers. Most JAL flights into China in June were two-thirds empty.

For those Americans who stuck to their travel plans and went to China, red carpet treatment awaited. Countries such as China earn so much foreign exchange from tourism that Chinese officials, hotel operators and others were doing everything possible to spread the word that travel within the country was safe . . . and pleasurable.

It hasn't worked, and the overall downturn in tourism to China has hurt Hong Kong, too.

"The big problem," said one Hong Kong hotelier, "is how many Americans are geographically ignorant. They put Hong Kong in the same bag with China. They think the two are one and the same."

They won't be, of course, until 1997, when Britain returns the colony to Chinese rule. But a look at hotel occupancy rates indicates that many tourists think that 1997 may already have arrived.

Nearly a third of all organized group tours to China--as well as Asian cruise ship itineraries--included Hong Kong stopovers either before or after the main China tours. Most of those have been canceled.

Many cruise lines and tour operators have rerouted their customers to such places as Bangkok and Bali, Singapore and Malaysia.

In Bangkok it's now difficult to get a hotel reservation. In Singapore, where hotels have had a hard time filling their 25,000 rooms, double-digit growth in American arrivals has solved the problem.

Even Indonesia, which had been hoping for increased American tourism starting in 1991 when the country launches "Visit Indonesia Year," already is seeing a surprising boom in tourists directly tied to the China unrest.

But the hotels in Hong Kong are hurting and, for the first time in recent memory, many of them--even some of the luxury properties--have begun to quietly discount their rooms.

Rooms that normally sell for $150 U.S. a night are being offered for as low as $85. Some hotels, like the newly opened 605-room Marriott, are reportedly operating at just a 45% occupancy rate.

Compounding the problem is the fact that Hong Kong is in the midst of a major hotel-building boom. Between now and 1991 more than 34,000 hotel rooms are expected to be built.

Officially, the Hong Kong Tourist Assn. reports that travel to Hong Kong is down 20% from last year. Hotel occupancy in June was 76%, compared with the June average of 91%.

"We're trusting that it will be short-lived," said one HKTA spokesperson. "Already, European travel has picked up."

Inevitably, American tourists will return to China, but most observers believe it will not be before 1991.

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