Balancing tourist flows

José I. Duarte
The issue limiting the number of visitors continues in the public agenda and several people have recently commented on the topic. This is a relevant matter for Macau and one that can easily be mishandled and become a source of avoidable conflicts. Some care in framing the issue is thus warranted.
First, let’s recognise that a problem exists. Traffic congestion, crowded tourist areas, observable (and breathable) pollution and very audible noise do not need to be demonstrated. They are visible and patent. It is a typical problem of congestion with observable negative impact on the life of local residents and the quality of their environment. As such, it deserves attention and doing nothing is not a defensible option unless one can prove that any feasible action will have negative wellbeing impact.
Economic analysis and public policy routinely deal with similar problems. Circulation in the public streets is unrestrained until congestion becomes significant and its costs rise. Then, we accept that authorities set up various tools to minimise it or control its rise – adopting taxes that make ownership and operation of vehicles more expensive, setting up circulation and parking fees in more congested areas, limiting or forbidding circulation in certain areas or periods, to name but a few. There is nothing extraordinary there. In its essence, we deal here with the same type of problem.
Of course, we must also recognise that it touches on more diversified interests and sensibilities. Both in Macau, where visitors are the bread and butter of many, and on the other side of the Border Gate, where most of our visitors come from. But, in rigor, the issue is not to limit the visitors coming from China per se but to achieve a better flow of overall visitors in a way that balances the various interests at stake. This is a typical matter for public policy and one worthy of serious attention. There are three essential pillars to such policy.
The first is to make the cost of visiting the city higher for the types of tourists that contribute more to congestion and less to residents’ income. As quotas are notoriously difficult to set and control, that will mean, essentially, finding ways of making very short tourist excursions more expensive. The aim is to make their trip less worthwhile and, by the same token, make the visit for longer-term visitors comparatively cheaper and more enjoyable.
The second is to diversify the factors of attraction and, namely, to do so in ways which promote or facilitate events and activities enabling tourists to flow over wider city areas and longer day periods.
Third, to recognise that optimal policies are unlikely to be defined on paper at the outset. Proper monitoring and fine-tuning mechanisms should be put in place to adapt policies as circumstances require. The worst option would be to let things get worse until they are beyond repair and the city bursts at the seams.