Amid the shift of MGTO to the portfolio of the Secretariat for Economy and Finance and the COVID-19 outbreak, analysts note the authorities should seize this chance to improve the local tourism structure instead of simply striving for a growth in visitation figures for the sake of recovery
Fulfilling one of the pledges he made during the election campaign last year for expediting the public administrative reform, Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng has recently unveiled plans to restructure and overhaul government bodies in his maiden Policy Address. One of the conspicuous changes is moving the Macao Government Tourism Office (MGTO) from the portfolio of the Secretariat for Social Affairs and Culture to the Secretariat for Economy and Finance.
While this has been hailed as creating better synergy between tourism and other major sectors in the city, some are worried the shift might mean prioritising economic value over other integral parts of tourism. As analysts perceive this transfer as merely “an administrative decision,” they point out that the authorities should seize the opportunity now to optimise the local tourism structure and tourism carrying capacity to get ready for the post COVID-19 era.
In the Policy Address for 2020 announced in April, Mr. Ho justified the move citing tourism as “a main economic pillar” of the territory that the government could better promote through the joint development of tourism and other industries like MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) with MGTO under the Secretariat for Economy and Finance. The Chief Executive stressed that the change would not have any direct impact upon the tourism body, adding the shift would be completed by the end of this year.
Since the establishment of the Macau SAR in December 1999, MGTO has always been under the portfolio of the Secretariat for Social Affairs and Culture, one of the five secretariats within the SAR government. This is the continuation of the governance structure of the former Portuguese administration here, when the tourism body fell under the Secretariat for Communications, Tourism and Culture, which was eventually merged into the Secretariat for Social Affairs and Culture after the handover.
Years of rumours
“The transfer of MGTO to the Secretariat for Economy and Finance has been rumoured for years since the handover,” says Ron Lam U Tou, president of local think tank Macau Synergy Association. “The rumours could date back to the 2000’s, when MGTO was said to move from the Secretariat for Social Affairs and Culture to the Secretariat for Economy and Finance in exchange for the Social Security Fund in view of updating the administration structure in accordance with the changes in the society.”
The Social Security Fund was indeed transferred from the Secretariat for Economy and Finance to the Secretariat for Social Affairs and Culture in 2011 — under the reign of former chief executive Fernando Chui Sai On — but the move of MGTO was only greenlighted by his successor this April. Not speculating on why it took the government so long to do so, Mr. Lam concurs with the transfer of MGTO that he describes as “an administrative decision.”
“Macau is known as a tourism economy, and gaming, which is the biggest industry here, is regarded as part of tourism in a broad sense,” said the political commentator. “Thus, it makes sense for MGTO to be included in the Secretariat for Economy and Finance. It is also well known that the inter-departmental coordination and cooperation here — especially when the public bodies are under different secretariats — have low efficiency.”
Mr. Lam does not foresee that the change will have any big impact upon the city’s tourism policy. “What is detrimental to whether MGTO could function well is the sound and rational mindset of the policymakers,” he adds.
Culture and tourism
A major concern for the transfer of MGTO is that the future tourism policymaking process might place less emphasis on its social and cultural consequences, as well as its impact on the local community. The change also seems to be against the national trend — the China National Tourism Administration and the Ministry of Culture was merged in 2018 to become the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in a bid to “facilitate the integrated development of cultural industry and tourism” in Mainland China, and to “elevate the cultural soft power” of the mainland.
Legislator and scholar Agnes Lam Iok Fong thinks the scenarios in Macau and the mainland are different, as the former has been well-known for its cultural heritage as the city’s historic centre was inscribed on the World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 2005. The governing entity, the Cultural Affairs Bureau, has been “doing a good job” in conserving cultural heritage, as well as organising events and activities to promote the local culture and arts, she says.
“Thus, I don’t see a big problem for MGTO and the Cultural Affairs Bureau to be placed under the portfolio of different secretariats. Nonetheless, an internal mechanism should be in place for MGTO to be aware of the latest cultural policies, ensuring the smooth cooperation between the two departments,” the lawmaker notes. Provided that the policies and works of MGTO so far have been more aligned with the policy initiatives of the Secretariat for Economy and Finance, she agrees with the government’s decision in shifting the tourism body.
Better than none
Albeit discussed for years, this shift has been a concern of some in the community, given the timing of its announcement: The city’s tourism has been struggling amid the global pandemic of COVID-19. The visitation figure has been in free fall since early this year — latest government data show the number of travellers to Macau plunged by over 90 per cent in both February and March — as the novel coronavirus outbreak forced jurisdictions to put an array of lockdown measures and travel restrictions in place.
It was a completely different picture before the pandemic, when the city’s visitation figure rose over 10 per cent year-on-year to a historic high of 39.4 million last year, and the society discussed the possibilities of a tourist tax to rein in the mass tourism growth and relieve the burden on the city’s carrying capacity.
On the same day as announcing the transfer of MGTO, the Chief Executive noted that once the pandemic is under control, they would request Beijing to resume the Individual Visit Scheme (IVS), which has been halted since January, to allow Mainland Chinese — the city’s major source of tourists — to visit the city individually rather than being part of a tour group. Mr. Ho said at the time they would also ask the central government to increase the number of mainland cities covered by IVS, with the current number standing at 49 mainland cities, in the hope of accelerating the recovery of the local tourism and economy. “The impacts from COVID-19 upon Macau show it’s better to have tourists than no tourists,” the city’s top job said.
Two weeks after Mr. Ho’s maiden Policy Address and remarks, MGTO announced last month that it had decided to “bring an end to its consideration of the possibility of tourist tax imposition.” The tourism body carried out a consultation exercise last year, which found the public approved of a new tax levied upon the travellers to resolve the problems of overtourism — overcrowding and adverse impact upon the community due to an excess of tourists — while the business community opposed this potential measure.
“[T]he SAR Government is striving to bolster recovery of the trade through different measures such as tax reduction and economic support, and avoid bringing any adverse effects upon the tourism industry,” the tourism body explained in a statement.
Samuel Tong Kai Chung, president of Macau Political Economy Research Association, approves the transfer of MGTO and discarding the talks of tourist tax. “The formulation of any policy has to be aligned with the positioning of the city, its long-term development visions and its economic cycle,” he noted. “Once the economy has slowed and the visitation has plunged, it’s no longer feasible to discuss the possibility of tourist tax.”
However, the scholar noted that the information gathered during the consultation exercise last year could help lay down the foundation for future tourism policies, provided that the government could have a better understanding of the viewpoints of different stakeholders. “Given the inclusion of MGTO in the portfolio of the Secretariat for Economy and Finance, the future [tourism policies] will definitely focus more on enhancing the economic efficiency [of tourism] and attracting quality travellers, which will somehow help easing Macau’s tourism carrying capacity,” Mr. Tong says.
Rather than imposing a new levy, he believes the key to resolving overtourism is to enhance the territory’s carrying capacity, and the authorities should seize the opportunities now to cater more new tourism products and explore new tourism offerings with nearby Hengqin to get ready for the post Covid-19 era.
Though the government has ceased discussions of tourist tax, Mr. Lam from the Macau Synergy Association notes that it should not cease rolling out proposals to resolve the overtourism here. “There is, without any doubt, the city has a problem of overloaded tourism carrying capacity,” he simply states. “The problem might not surface now due to the COVID-19 pandemic but it will resurface again one day in the future — and the problem will only be bigger, as it has not been promptly tackled in the first place.”
Provided that the congestion and crowded scenes only occurred on weekends and public holidays while the city’s infrastructure and facilities could handle the influx of travellers on weekdays in the past, he suggests the authorities could negotiate with the central government to rein in the number of mainland Chinese visiting Macau during holidays through IVS and package tour permits.
The political commentator thinks it is high time for the city to optimise the tourism structure amid the recovery from the virus outbreak, namely liaising with Beijing to tackle the so-called “zero-fare package tours.” Zero-fare package tours, or low-fare tours, refer to package tours — particularly from the mainland — in which travellers are only required to pay low or no fees, but are later asked or forced to shop and spend at designated stores. Despite the mainland implementing its first tourism law in October 2013 and banning travel agencies from organising package tours at “an unreasonably low price,” travel businesses still find other means to offer package tours with zero or low charges, like cash rebates and coupons.
“Many shops here that rely on this business model have closed during this pandemic given the lack of travellers, but shops that have a well-balanced mix of travellers and residents as customers could still survive,” Mr. Lam notes. “So this pandemic tells us that what we need is quality tourism.”