Taiwanese desert Hong Kong for Japan, citing political fears and high-end cosmetics

The city has fallen out of favor amid an ongoing crackdown on critics of the government.
By Raymond Cheng and Jojo Man for RFA Cantonese
Taiwanese desert Hong Kong for Japan, citing political fears and high-end cosmetics A vendor selling handbags along with a few "I heart HK" tote bags, sits in her booth at Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong. Credit: Associated Press
Photo: RFA

Hong Kong has dropped out of the top five tourism destinations for residents of democratic Taiwan, who are forsaking the city they once loved to shop and eat in for Japan.

Nearly one-third of the three million Taiwanese nationals who traveled abroad between January and April this year were headed for Japan, followed by China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

Hong Kong, once a favored destination for short shopping-and-eating trips, fell to sixth place, partly due to the ongoing political restrictions there, and partly for financial reasons.

"I used to feel quite relaxed going there -- it was all about shopping and eating, wasn't it?" a Taiwanese national who gave only the surname Ou, who has been to the city more than 10 times in recent years, said.

A Taiwanese woman surnamed Chen said she used to relish going to Hong Kong at least twice a year for the on-trend fashions and the Cantonese food.

"Now I feel it's more convenient to go to Japan, and it seems a bit cheaper there," she said.

A tour guide who gave only the surname Li said the weak yen is attracting more tourists to Japan, many of whom want to invest in Japanese make-up and skincare products they've seen on TV.

"You can't get anything like Japan's make-up and skincare products anywhere else," Li said. "We rarely see cosmetics and skincare products from Hong Kong advertised on Taiwanese TV, which is fanning the flames [of travel to Japan]."

Arbitrary arrest, refusal of entry and interrogation

And the fear of arbitrary arrest, refusal of entry and interrogation is also a growing factor for residents of democratic Taiwan who may have been prominent critics of the Chinese government on social media in recent years.

The island's Mainland Affairs Council recently updated its travel advice for Hong Kong, warning Taiwanese in Hong Kong to avoid carrying electronic tealights, wearing T-shirts referencing the 1989 Tiananmen massacre or possessing news materials relating to the city's 2019 mass protest movement.

"I couldn't help but criticize China online during the 2019 protest movement," a Taiwanese who gave only the surname Ou told Radio Free Asia.

"Now I'm a little bit scared because I don't know to what extent they are going after people," he said.

Mainland tourists and other people walk along the promenade next to Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. Credit: AFP
Mainland tourists and other people walk along the promenade next to Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. Credit: AFP

The national security law – imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020 – ushered in a citywide crackdown on public dissent and criticism of the authorities that has seen senior journalists, pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai and 47 former lawmakers and democracy activists charged with offenses from "collusion with a foreign power" to "subversion." 

It applies to speech and acts committed anywhere in the world, and has been used to issue the leaders of a London-based rights group with a takedown order for its website.

The Council issued a news release on July 27 warning the democratic island's 23 million residents to take care when considering travel to China, which includes Hong Kong, and calling for an end to the "unreasonable detention" of Taiwanese people.

Think twice about Hong Kong travel

Earlier this month, a Taiwanese lecturer who gave only the pseudonym R said he was refused entry to Hong Kong after being interrogated in a room at the airport about the purpose of his trip.

Ho Ming-hsiu, sociology professor at National Taiwan University, said Taiwanese academics should definitely think twice about traveling to Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong has its own list [of people likely to be detained or interrogated], and everyone thinks that the criteria used for this list are stricter than those of China," Ho said.

"Under the National Security Law, the Hong Kong government doesn't have to let you leave, so everyone worries that they might not be allowed to leave if they do go there," he said.

Even for people unlikely to be targeted for political reasons, the increased security means longer waits in line at border checkpoints which used to keep the lines moving fast and waiting to a minimum for incoming tourists, according to travel agency boss Chen Ting-yun.

"There has been a lingering shadow ever since the 2019 protest movement, with Taiwanese consumers fearing they could get into some kind of trouble if they go to Hong Kong," Chen told RFA.

"Also, the shops aren't quite as prosperous as they used to be, while the big-name brands aren't offering the same kind of discounts that they once did," he said.

"A lot of the famous brands have shut down their stores," Chen said.

Lee Chi-yueh, an assistant professor of tourism at the Taipei City University of Science and Technology, said Hong Kong could do with adapting its role as a regional destination.

"They haven't really added any attractions since the 2019 protest movement," he said. "Hong Kong's main role used to be as a transit destination, but that role has been taken over by Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore."

"So Hong Kong will need to offer more than the old formula of shopping and eating if it wants to compete," he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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