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Hong Kong's Next Act

It's currently championing a new $53.5 million global marketing campaign titled "Hong Kong—Live It. Love It!" Clara Chong, the board's energetic chief, roped in film star Jackie Chan and Japanese singer Yumi Matsutoyato make commercials that present the city's "vibrant and sensational lifestyle" and its "dynamic and sophisticated experiences."

Reactions to the program have been mixed. "There is a ring of desperation to all this," says Xiao Li, a university professor from Beijing who teaches in the city. "Hong Kong is about money, and spending it, and always has been. Slogans about loving the city sound ridiculous, especially since many people are heading to China for jobs."

Beyond the campaign, the board is trying new ways to broaden the city's image, in an attempt to garner more repeat visitors. One idea is to make Hong Kong an "events center," by hosting mega-events organized around both traditional festivities, such as the Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival and the Christmas and Chinese New Year WinterFest, as well as completely new ones like the Strato-Fantasia, a multimedia son et lumière in Victoria Harbour. By attracting visitors for such celebrations, "we can be a window on Asia," Chong says.

Another pillar of Hong Kong's strategy is a Disney theme park and new resort hotels scheduled to open in 2005 or 2006 on Lantau Island, near the airport. Disney expects 40 percent of the park's visitors to come from mainland China and the rest from as far away as India. Most important, the park should attract the lucrative family market, which today accounts for only 18 percent of visitors. "Our research tells us the park will bring in 5.6 million visitors in the first year," a senior Disney executive, who asked not to be identified, told me. "In fact, we think the market is so big that five or six years later there will be room for another park in China."

One aspect of Hong Kong that the government (and travelers, for that matter) largely ignore is the parks and beaches, which are some of the best in the region. One day on my recent visit I took a cab to Sai Kung in the New Territories and hired a wooden fishing boat to putter around some of the uninhabited islands, where you can stop at deserted beaches and take a swim in crystal clear water. Even the surfing is good.

To my mind, Hong Kong's attractions for leisure travelers not intent on shopping have always been overrated. Those who venture out of their Kowloon hotels into the crowded streets in search of authentic experiences often return enervated and bathed in sweat. The temples and sampans are not there. Neither, really, are vestiges of the old colonial Hong Kong. Property development has already destroyed much of what was unspoiled and unique here and is encroaching on whatever else remains.

One of the lasting effects of the SARS crisis is that it encouraged the city's usually apolitical citizens to raise their voices about a variety of issues, including the environment. Demonstrations have become increasingly frequent, from the July 1, 2003, protest against anti-subversion legislation—the second largest in the city's history—to a smaller one at the end of September calling for preservation of the harbor. Officials are now talking more seriously about the problem of air pollution, which, among other things, obscures views from the Peak.

These are encouraging developments. For even if travelers from Europe, America, and Japan never return in as great numbers as before, and the mainlanders do hold the city's future in their wallets, preserving—and promoting—natural attractions will be one significant way to keep the Chinese coming back. As they grow richer, and as brand-name shops, fine restaurants, luxury hotels, and theme parks grow more common on the mainland, they, like other visitors before them, will find themselves with fewer compelling reasons to stop over in Hong Kong. Easy opportunities to experience nature and open spaces and sea breezes, on the other hand, are becoming more scarce on the mainland every day. And so a side of the city that few now tout could one day turn out to be the real, best reason to live and love Hong Kong.

JASPER BECKER is a journalist who has covered Asia for 18 years. His most recent book is The Chinese (Oxford).

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