Since 2000, the number of visitors to Asia from the Middle East has surged from around 600,000 to over 1.6 million annually.
But Hong Kong only attracts a small portion of those visitors, a situation it is trying to change by promoting itself as a gateway to China for Mid Eastern travelers.
The city already has a sizeable Muslim population. According to Mohammed Khan, one of 15 Muslim leaders of Hong Kong’s Islamic Council Union, there are no firm estimates of the number of Muslims in Hong Kong but at his “guestimate, it’s around half a million people.“
Hong Kong boasts five mosques that serve the city’s Muslim inhabitants. Khan, a Hong Kong native, says he sees more Mideast visitors to the city now than in the past.
“There are a lot of individual visits – businessman, family visits and what not. They are mainly from the Middle Eastern countries from Kuwait, UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia,” he told CNN’s Ramy Inocencio.
Visitors are attracted by relatively cheaper shopping, Disneyland and Mickey Mouse, and business in mainland China.
But keeping halal – steering clear of foods like pork and lard – is traditionally what makes it harder for Muslim tourists in Hong Kong.
The city of 7 million only has an estimated 50 or so halal restaurants.
Adjoining his mosque, Khan manages an Islamic canteen which serves Hong Kong’s only halal dimsum. Being half-Chinese and half-Pakistani, he’s helping residents and visitors bridge cultural divides.
The portion of Mid East visitors to Hong Kong is growing. Since 1997, the number has risen nearly four-fold, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Even so – only 200,000 Mideast visitors came to the city last year. That’s less than a tenth of a percent of the city’s total tourists.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board wants to change that.
“We are committed to continue to conduct our marketing program and keep investing in the Middle East region because we believe it will continue to bring us growth, said Anthony Lau, executive director of the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
And Edwin Lau, Emirates Airlines Hong Kong vice-president, hopes to capitalize on the hoped-for increase.
He says growth for the Dubai-based carrier to Hong Kong has been fantastic.
“In 1997 we were only operating one aircraft which was Airbus 330 – the configuration was about 220 passengers. And today, we are operating three flights out of Hong Kong every night. So the total capacity is about 1,100.”
Lau doesn’t think Mideast visitors face any impediment in Hong Kong but he does suggest improvements.
“We could think about building a few more mosques for the Middle East people and we should also set up some halal restaurants in Hong Kong, which suit the taste of the Middle East people.”
All part of the quest to make this a more welcoming city…and encourage people from the Middle East to answer the call from the Far East.