As Changeover Nears, Tourists Head For Hong Kong

Hotels, restaurants, and businesses cope with an abundance of visitors

Forget white sands and deserted beaches. In Hong Kong, where jack hammers rattle the pavement and double-decker buses barrel along, you can see history in the making. While few would call this Crown colony a tourist-friendly town, it's ringing up a record number of visitors to the tune of bells on a cash register.

Great Britain will give Hong Kong back to China in less than five months, as agreed in a 1984 Sino-British treaty guaranteeing wide autonomy to the territory for the next 50 years. Since then, China has vowed to scrap the current legislature and replace it with an appointed provisional body that has been meeting in China. This body could repeal human rights laws and strengthen police power.

"The whole world is watching this reversion," to see if Beijing honors its commitments, said US President Clinton to Chinese President Jiang Zemin in bilateral talks last November in Manila.

One British television company plans to shoot live on the night of the handover from the roof of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with the Hong Kong skyline as a backdrop.

Even Hollywood is interested. Hong Kong-born director Wayne Wang is in town filming a movie about the handover, starring British actor Jeremy Irons as a journalist covering it and Chinese actress Gong Li as his love interest.

Hong Kong's 6 million people are watching especially closely, and true to their reputation, hoping to make a buck.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Sheets of 100 "Queen's Head" stamps worth 23 cents each over the counter are selling among collectors for $2,500. But, a "HK 1997" fashion license plate was taken off the auction block when its owner was offered $370,000, instead of the $1.3 million asking price.

Memorabilia are everywhere, like flags,T-shirts saying "1997," greeting cards, and a digital ticking countdown clock. Bookstores are filled with coffee-table publications showcasing photographs of modern Hong Kong, colonial Hong Kong, women of Hong Kong, and powerful people of Hong Kong (not including newly appointed Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa).

The biggest money is in tourism. Ten years ago, the Excelsior Hotel was the first to offer a 1997 special deal, letting customers book a room on July 30, 1997, for $256. All 100 rooms were reserved within weeks.

A more common scenario at luxury hotels has been raised prices, maximum lengths of stay, and early, nonrefundable, full prepayments.

"Restaurants are going to be packed. We're going to be absolutely inundated with people," claims Sarah Cairns, director of public relations for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. "Flights are going to be very hard to get and very costly."

Tourists confirm this. "I went to several travel agencies, and seats were filling up very quickly. I couldn't get a seat on the dates of my choice," says American Brian Wallace, a photographer who wants to witness the handover so much he is paying extra to fly business class.

Wallace missed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 because he cut a trip to Europe short. "I want to see the changeover.... This incredible bastion of capitalism changes in one nano second, overnight. Instead of being in Berlin, I watched it on CNN. I could have been there. I don't want to watch this on CNN," he says.

Many airline flights are full, especially from Australia, Great Britain, America, and Canada, says the Hong Kong Tourist Association.

June, a busy month any year, sees students living abroad, Hong Kong residents with foreign passports, and an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 journalists all competing for seats.

About 27 percent of hotel rooms are free for booking, according to a tourist association survey. Travel agents say that figure is low.

"At this moment, at least, there are still rooms," says Johnny Zee, director general manager for Orient Network (HK) Ltd, the government-appointed agency handling hotel bookings during the handover.

Zee predicts a rush for rooms in mid-May and early June, and 80 to 85 percent room occupancy during the handover.

Tourism matters because it is Hong Kong's second largest foreign-exchange earner behind textiles. Last year, tourist-spending receipts were $11 billion, up 12.8 percent from the previous year.

Meanwhile, a record 11.7 million people visited Hong Kong in 1996, up 15 percent from the year before. Most were Asians, with Japanese and mainland Chinese at the top and growing fast. Last year, 2.4 million Japanese came to Hong Kong, compared to 2.3 million mainland Chinese and 750,000 Americans. Hotels were 88 percent full.

It comes as no surprise that Hong Kong Tourist Association spokesman Peter Randall touts the territory as being "the most popular destination in Asia" for the past 10 years.

This year, the tourist association expects a 7 percent increase in visitors. "Obviously, 1997 is acting as a draw," Mr. Randall says. "Hong Kong's profile has been raised the most it's ever been around the world."

The bad news is that the territory's Kai Tak Airport is saturated. It turns down 200 applications for planes to land each week, effectively putting a cap on the number of visitors. Although, people can come via Macau for the cost of a $20 one-hour ferry ticket.

American tourist Beverly Krusz said she came to Hong Kong over Christmas because, "I just wanted to experience the city under British rule."

Ms. Krusz, a high school teacher from Alaska, is worried that China's rule would destroy the territory's vibrancy. "When people back here say, 'Oh well, the mainland Chinese will take over and repress all this, it's like, the light that's Hong Kong, the freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, can't be shut down. In fact, it'll shed light on mainland China."

Nancy Shuo Anderson, a local business woman selling Chinese folk art, says, "The handover is not going to be as dramatic as the Berlin Wall. It's going to be more covert. You can't see that as a tourist because you're not here long enough."

Just in case there are no hotel rooms, the tourist association is looking to university dormitories, private housing, and a cruise ship, the 746-cabin Star Pisces, to take in visitors.

Chee-may Chow, assistant producer for CNBC, is a Hong Kong Chinese resident and grew up in the colony. "Residents are not that affected," she says. "All we know is that we get five days of holiday. I don't want to go away during this historic time, but everything is so hyped up. I don't know whether it'll be anticlimactic."

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that on June 30, 1997, there won't be a spare bed, floor, or apartment anywhere in the territory. And everyone hopes that, on July 1, 1997, the newest acquisition of China will wake up to "business as usual."

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