"Providing support for hard-hit industries affected by the epidemic" (2021/06/23)

"Providing support for hard-hit industries affected by the epidemic" (2021/06/23)

MR YIU SI-WING (in Cantonese):

President, I move that the motion, as printed on the Agenda, be passed.


The COVID-19 epidemic has dealt a severe blow to Hong Kong's healthcare system and affected people's livelihood. In order to control the epidemic, the Government has implemented the No-gathering Order and quarantine measures for people arriving in Hong Kong, resulting in a decline in spending power, a sharp fall in inbound and outbound visitors, and a significant drop in Hong Kong's service industry. In response, the Government has introduced a series of support measures, including allocating funding for the Anti-epidemic Fund and launching the Employment Support Scheme, so as to provide assistance for employers and employees affected by the epidemic and prevent a wave of business closures and layoffs. With the epidemic under control, most business premises have reopened and local consumption has gradually picked up. The Government's measures have begun to bear fruit, with the overall unemployment rate in Hong Kong improving significantly in recent months. According to the latest labour force statistics released by the Census and Statistics Department last week, the overall unemployment rate in Hong Kong dropped to 6%, reflecting the budding recovery in many sectors, but the unemployment rate of the consumption- and tourism-related sectors (viz. retail, accommodation and food services sectors) was still as high as 9.4%.


The various figures show that of the traditional four pillar industries, the recovery is mainly seen in financial services, trading and logistics, and professional and producer services, while the other pillar, tourism and related sectors, is left alone in distress and dying without knowing when business can be resumed. At its peak in 2018, Hong Kong's tourism industry contributed to 4.5% of its GDP and employed more than 250 000 people. In the second half of 2019, due to "black-clad violence", tourism, especially inbound tourism, contracted significantly, with employment falling by 10% from the figure in 2018 to 230 000, and its contribution to GDP dropping to 3.6%. It was hoped that the industry would recover in 2020, but unfortunately, starting from the end of January last year, Hong Kong has been affected by the epidemic on the Mainland and the closure of border checkpoints being implemented gradually. Almost one and a half years have passed since then, and our inbound and outbound tourism revenues have plummeted by more than 90%. Although no exact unemployment figures are available, it is estimated that the current unemployment rate concerned is definitely much higher than that of other industries. It has been a good two years, and you can imagine how heavy the blow to the tourism industry is.


President, although the Government has launched several rounds of support measures that benefit the tourism industry, there is still no hope for the industry to recover in the face of the continuous mutation of the virus, the volatility of the epidemic situation in various places, and no definitive date for the resumption of cross-border travel. Currently, many travel agencies have laid off a lot of their staff, requested them to take unpaid leave, or even chosen to close down, and freelancers have been incomeless for a long time. Recently, in order to help tourism industry members, the Government outsourced more than 1 700 short-term management jobs in 24 community vaccination centres to the tourism industry, and in just a few days, more than 10 000 people applied. We can thus see the seriousness of unemployment in the tourism industry. In fact, only a small number of people have been offered temporary jobs, and many of those who have been unemployed for a long time can wait no more and have no choice but to switch to other trades.


President, even if cross-border travel is expected to resume, there are still many uncertainties, as evidenced by the recent twists and turns of the "travel bubble" with Singapore and the change of the requirement of the Macao Government from zero infections for 14 days to zero infections for 28 days. We can thus see the complexity of resuming normal cross-border travel. The tourism industry has always contributed to the economy of Hong Kong. Not only does it drive the retail, catering, transportation, logistics, convention and exhibition industries, but it also provides jobs for a large number of grassroots people. As one of the four pillars of the economy, the tourism industry is now in such a state that the Government has to take up the responsibility of saving the industry. If the Government still refuses to lend a helping hand, the industry will inevitably be declining, thus slowing down the pace of Hong Kong's economic recovery.


In recent months, some Members and I have repeatedly requested the Government to introduce targeted support measures for hard-hit industries, but the Government has been dragging its feet, ignoring the long-standing pressure on the operation of the industries. Therefore, I have proposed my motion for the purpose of urging the Government to face up to the reality and, according to the extent to which the industries have been hit, allocate more resources to help hard-hit industries to tide over their difficulties and prepare for the coming recovery of the tourism industry.


In order to achieve the desired effect of providing support, I have the following suggestions. First, the Government should define hard-hit industry. A hard-hit industry can be understood as an industry whose revenue has dropped by at least 50% in the past year due to the epidemic, and there is no chance that business will return to 50% of its previous level in the next few months. As we can see, most tourism-related industries fall under my hypothetical definition, and the revenue of many companies, especially travel agencies, have actually fallen by far more than 50%. These are definitely hard-hit industries.


Second, the Government should support hard-hit industries that have made significant contributions to Hong Kong but are having difficulties in resuming business. The Government earlier allocated funds to support Cathay Pacific and Ocean Park Hong Kong on the basis of the above principle as well, but in comparison, this is grossly unfair when it comes to cross-border land and sea passenger transport. According to statistics, about 300 million passenger trips were made to and from Hong Kong each year through various channels before the epidemic, with one third of them being made via cross-border buses and ferries. It is thus clear that the cross-border passenger transport industry has made irreplaceable contributions to Hong Kong's economy, livelihood, employment and international image. Cross-border passenger transport has been suspended for almost a year and a half. During this period, apart from safeguarding jobs, the Government has only provided varying degrees of subsidies to each cross-boundary coach, cross-boundary hire car and cross-boundary ferry, and each local cross-boundary coach driver can receive $23,400. However, the amount of subsidy is totally disproportionate to the impact on the industry. The local coach and airline industries are also facing similar problems, only to a different extent. Many operators in these industries are now at the end of their resources and are in desperate need of another round of government assistance. Even if a recovery is on the horizon, these operators of the transport industry still need to bear heavy expenses such as repair and maintenance, disinfection of facilities, re-employment of staff, etc. before the resumption of business, and the Government needs to provide a start-up fund for the resumption of business. Without proper support, some of the routes will inevitably shrink and affect the progress of recovery of the tourism industry.


Finally, the Government should provide appropriate support to hard-hit industries based on the above assessment. After two rounds of measures to support employment, the Government has already obtained considerable data and is fully capable of formulating a new round of targeted support schemes for hard-hit industries. Many operators of the industries have reflected that the approach of supporting employment last year could effectively support hard-hit industries and their employees and help them tide over the difficulties. I hope that the Government will give active consideration to this.


President, apart from providing support, the industry hopes that the Government can put the epidemic under control and adopt a pro-active attitude in striving for early resumption of cross-border travel with the Mainland, Macao and overseas jurisdictions. Only when cross-border travel is resumed can problems with the economy and the tourism industry of Hong Kong be truly solved.


President, I so submit.