Published: 01:18, August 8, 2023 | Updated: 10:03, August 8, 2023
Croatia can offer HK lessons on sustainable tourism
By Douglas Young

I took part recently in a group discussion about sustainable tourism in Hong Kong organized by China Daily. It was very timely for me because I had just returned from Croatia, a country heavily dependent on tourism. Some 20 percent of Croatia’s GDP is derived from it, so the government has had no option but to get it right. And get it right, they did.

Croatia is steeped in history dating back to pre-Roman times. Similar to other countries in this part of the world, it has been through turbulent times. Multiple foreign nationalities have left their mark on its landscape. Unlike other ancient civilizations that have perished, Croatia’s rich history is still “living” and evolving. An observant visitor will notice the layers of built heritage left behind by each successive generation: modern dwellings built on Roman underpinnings, shops converted from medieval warehouses, and all sorts of adaptations of old buildings for modern use. The result is an architectural palimpsest of urbanization and human intervention. To me, this is the ultimate manifestation of sustainable tourism: the ability to pass on heritage from one generation to the next and allow each generation to leave a mark for posterity.

In Croatia, the modern intervention in historic cities such as Split and Dubrovnik is done in a very considered manner. When constructions are needed to facilitate visitors’ access to historic sites, they are designed with not just functionality in mind, but also with consideration to their aesthetic impact. Logic would suggest the most inconspicuous solution would be to mimic the historic backdrop, but surprisingly, this was not the most commonly chosen method. The contemporary additions are unashamedly modern in style and construction; lightweight metal walking gantries delicately perched over the stone monuments provide contrast but at the same time complements the original fabric.

Elsewhere, multilingual signage is required to guide visitors to various locations as well as provide useful information. These have been designed with simplicity in mind and conform to excellent graphic standards. Similar in spirit to the aforementioned architectural additions, they are also unashamedly modern in style and contrast wonderfully with the ancient street signs still remaining in the older neighborhoods.

It is important to emphasize the consistent application of such new design features throughout the country. This contributes to an overall high quality experience when visiting Croatia, boosting the country’s image as a premium tourist destination.

My proposal to the government is that we designate one small manageable area, such as an old abandoned village in one of our country parks, as a design laboratory for testing out ideas. If the area is small, the task of aligning various interest groups would become more achievable. Such a program would be a model for the rest of Hong Kong to emulate once it becomes successful

There has been much debate about what sort of visitors Hong Kong should attract. Visitors from all around the world come to our beautiful city. They are all looking for different things to do, from shopping and sightseeing to other cultural and leisure activities. They range from the budget traveler to high-spending individuals. It seems impossible for us to offer one experience that would suit everybody.

However, if we try to pander to all tastes, we risk not pleasing anyone. How should we overcome this conundrum? We have no option but to make a firm decision so that what we offer is consistent.

For the major global city that Hong Kong purports to be, we should aim for top-tier tourists. They are the affluent and culturally minded group. Let us call them the “sophisticated” tourist for the sake of this exercise. In Hong Kong, we have most of the hardware in place, including beautiful natural landscape, world-class shopping malls and cultural facilities. What we lack is the sophisticated infrastructure to link everything up. The authorities in charge of tourism have an important role to play.

Targeting sophisticated travelers does not mean we neglect the other groups. We have to make this choice because the alternative of targeting the lower end of the market would not enable us to go up-market for the sophisticated tourists. Besides, there are many competing tourist destinations nearby that aim for low-end, mass-market consumers.

I am not advocating an elitist approach to tourism. I am all for inclusion for every class of visitor, and we must not exclude those with limited means. While our tourist sites should be of the highest value and quality, we should allow for different price points so that visitors on different budgets can also enjoy our facilities. This may sound like a contradiction, but referring to the lessons I learned from Croatia, well-designed tourist facilities do not come at the expense of excluding budget tourists. We may think that less-sophisticated tourists would find crass and tacky designs more appealing, but that should not be the case. There is considerable room for lower-end tourists to aspire to a higher standard than there is for sophisticated tourists to tolerate inferior facilities. With such high goals in mind, we should maintain a level of quality consistent throughout Hong Kong. The weakest link would be places that fall short of high standards. For it is here that the overall experience will be judged and the “dream” become undone.

Naturally, it is very difficult to roll out such a comprehensive program throughout Hong Kong from the get-go. There are simply too many parties with vested interests involved, from landlords to myriad other local stakeholders. My proposal to the government is that we designate one small manageable area, such as an old abandoned village in one of our country parks, as a design laboratory for testing out ideas. If the area is small, the task of aligning various interest groups would become more achievable. Such a program would be a model for the rest of Hong Kong to emulate once it becomes successful.

Such a project will need to involve high caliber design consultants, environmentalists and designers who are familiar with the level of sophistication we are aiming for. Certain sectors of the public should also be involved so that they can be tasked with operating facilities to a comparable standard. Upon introduction of the completed program to the public, there would need to be a feedback channel for the public to voice their opinions so that adjustments could be made. Should it finally achieve popular approval, we will be able to roll out the program elsewhere in Hong Kong and reset the standard of Hong Kong’s tourism industry as a whole. Should we achieve these lofty goals, our tourism industry would truly become sustainable in the long term.

The author is CEO and co-founder of G.O.D. (Goods of Desire).

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.