By Gary Walsh
Hong Kong and Macau have so much in common, yet are so wonderfully different. Both are autonomous regions of China that were colonies until surprisingly recently – Hong Kong of Britain until 1997 and Macau of Portugal until 1999. They are physically close, just an hour apart by boat, and ethnically dominated by Chinese people, speaking the same language, and sharing a dazzling food culture. But there are extraordinary contrasts between the two near neighbours.
Hong Kong has long been a major destination for Australian travellers – and it remains so, with visitation up 9.2 per cent in the first four months of this year over 2014 – either as a traditional stopover on the way to Europe or as a destination in its own right. Macau has been less in Australia’s consciousness until more recently, but is now firmly on the map, and not just among gamblers attracted by its Las Vegas-style casinos.
Hong Kong’s glories are in-your-face – the beauty of the harbour with its endless activity, the majestic skyline, Victoria Peak and its panoramic views, the charm of the Star ferries and the double-decker trams. And these days Macau doesn’t hide its appeal either – the brilliant light shows and feverish activities of the giant casinos along the Cotai Strip contrasting with the stately beauty of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic centre, highlighted by the iconic ruins of St Paul’s.
While Hong Kong’s tourism figures remain strong, with more than 69,000 Australians arriving in April this year – a rise of almost 20 per cent over the previous year – Macau is struggling somewhat, with Australian visitation down by 20 per cent in the first four months of the year compared with the same period in 2014. Australia, however, remains Macau’s seventh-biggest market, which is dominated by mainland Chinese and visitors from Hong Kong.
Macau also suffers from what might be called ‘short-term syndrome’ – the average length of stay is just one night, compared with four nights for Hong Kong. Most of its visitors other than mainland Chinese and Hong Kong citizens focused on its gambling attractions are on day trips from Hong Kong.
Both destinations continue to grow their accommodation options. Hong Kong is set to add about 4000 hotel rooms to its inventory this year, taking the total to almost 75,000. The Hong Kong Tourism Board has identified a trend towards boutique hotel openings with properties such as Swire Hotels’ East and The Upper House, The Mira, Hotel LKF, Lan Kwai Fong hotel, Hullett House, The Jervois, The Putman, J Plus, Hotel Icon and The Luxe Manor.
Macau’s hotel focus is on big-is-best casino/hotels and themed properties, typified by the recent opening of the 1015-room JW Marriott Macau in the massive Galaxy Resort complex. The Ritz-Carlton Macau opened on the same day in the same complex, but by contrast is a small, all-suite property with just 254 rooms. May also saw the opening of Broadway Macau, a recreated hawker style street market that also features a 320-room hotel. It is also part of the Galaxy development. Future projects will take Macau’s inventory to more than 40,000 rooms by the end of 2018.
Hong Kong, too, has the appeal of theme parks at Disneyland Hong Kong and Ocean Park. Both are constantly expanding. Disneyland Hong Kong is preparing a new Iron Man Experience, Disney’s first themed area focused on a Marvel Comics character, while Ocean Park is developing a new all-weather water park, with three new hotels also in the pipeline.
The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge at Lingdingyang in the Pearl River Estuary is set to open in 2017, designed to assist both passenger and freight traffic between the three cities. It will be a 29.6km dual three-lane carriageway that will include a 6.7km tunnel. Hong Kong will also open a new 26km section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link that will enhance its role as the southern gateway to the Chinese mainland. It will slash travel time to Guangzhou (Canton) to just 45 minutes when it opens at the end of 2017. And the runway of the infamous former Kai Tak Airport is being turned into a new cruise terminal, able to berth the largest cruise vessels.