Could local Catholic processions, which – in Greater China – only exist in Macau, make a contribution to tourist diversification? Japan has people interested, and Vietnam could be a benchmark.
MB July 2020 Special Report | Crossroads of Macau tourism
Macau is the only place in China with Catholic processions, and there are almost 400,000 Catholics in Hong Kong. Could these kind of public religious acts attract visitors and be a factor of tourism diversification in Macau?
“For more than a decade, the Government of Macau has always promoted cultural and religious tourism activities beyond tourism, hospitality, and gambling,” states former Macau based researcher and expert on that topic, Luis Miguel dos Santos.
“However, continues the Assistant Professor, at the Woosong Language Institute at Woosong University, South Korea, the results of these promotions are not significant.”
Mr Santos sees several reasons for that assessment.
First, “due to the shortages of entering ports, visitors to Macau tend to be people from the surrounding regions such as mainland China.” Once the majority of visitors are from mainland China, “the interests of these visitors tend to be singular. In fact, due to the non-religious based management of the Chinese government, there are no official religious practices in many of the Chinese cities,” adds the researcher, to whom, “more importantly, the Catholic religion is a practice of westernised behaviour, and due to some political problems many Chinese visitors do not have strong interests in these areas.”
But if the Chinese are not very interested in Catholic religious acts, “I believe that Japanese visitors might have very strong interests in understanding the folk, Daoist, and Catholic religious practices, activities, and establishments in Hong Kong and Macau. Japanese visitors usually have the interest to seek sightseeing points beyond casinos and shopping centres.”
Luis Miguel Santos adds a new argument when we discussed if Macau should promote its religious practices for tourism: “Macau has a unique background of cultural and religious practices in East Asia”, but “Vietnam, Nagasaki, East Timor, Goa, and the Philippines have rich westernised cultural practices in the East Asian or Asian region.”
“Therefore, Vietnam, for example, has promoted its religious tourism for years. Macau can promote similar tourism plans for its development,” concludes Professor Santos, underlining that Vietnam has at least three advantages: affordable costs, international airports with multiple inter-continental destinations, and the majority of visitors are not only mainland Chinese but international visitors.
A bet on cultural tourism, in a broader sense, will always be a niche bet, as opposed to the tourist who does not care or even seek a mass proposal – and who is in the majority.
But it is not possible to diversify tourism without niche bets like this one.
That is what Ubaldino Couto, of the Macau Institute for Tourism Studies (IFT), defends, with several works published on this subject.
“For the niche tourists, they want to see unusual, real and authentic experiences. They don’t enjoy the Ruins of St Paul’s photo or the egg tart, maybe they still want this for the record, but they want something more authentic, for example, to try out making and sampling a Macanese dish, preparing and performing a Chinese worship ritual at a temple honouring A-Ma, maybe hiking and exploring the countryside like visiting abandoned structures and buildings, visiting haunted houses, etc,” the IFT Lecturer says to Macau Business.
But with regard to the tourist potential of Catholic processions, Ubaldino Couto shows some caution: “Religious events are for the community and many don’t really appreciate their good selves as subjects for spectators. They don’t really want to be watched, photographed, or worse, disturbed during an otherwise solemn and spiritual environment.”
As a result of his own experience, Mr Couto concedes that, “in recent years, the Catholic processions in Macau have attracted many participatory faithful from nearby regions such as Hong Kong, the Mainland and Taiwan. I observe that they are welcomed into the community.”
If the processions also attract, “hundreds of photography enthusiasts and generally if they take photos and videos from a distance, it is not a problem.”
Luis Miguel Santos agrees: “as for the advantage, taking pictures and experiencing the atmosphere of religious practices, such pictures can be used to promote the religious practice of Macau. As for the negative aspects, religious fellows may feel concern and confusion due to random people. However, it highly depends on the quality of people. Taking pictures would not hurt, but interrupting the religious practices may hurt.”
“Nevertheless, the Assistant Professor, from Woosong Language Institute, Woosong University, South Korea states, cultural and religious tourism is a positive practice in promoting the image of cities and religions. However, the government needs to establish ‘social distancing’ between the visitors and the historical establishments.”
“Is World Heritage just a title for tourism?”
Undoubtedly the World Heritage inscription denotes a recognition of cultural and natural properties that have outstanding universal value.
But does it also attract tourists?
A study conducted last year in China shows that, “World Heritage inscription in China plays more roles in protecting inscribed properties than developing tourism from them.”
This study is in line with others which revealed that the designation of UNESCO heritage did not guarantee the inflow of tourists.
A Macau student, Honian Tang, also carried out a study on the subject last year, looking to compare the casino and Unesco-heritage sites in Macau using the price and density of Airbnb.
It was no surprise that Tang found the effect of the casinos on the Airbnb pricing and provision is stronger than that of UNESCO heritage sites.
“The price of Airbnb accommodation near to casinos tends to increase as the distance to the casino decreases. However, the distance of cultural heritage did not show a statistically significant relationship with Airbnb price. We suspected that the difference of the relationship came from the different kind of tourists. Tourists for casinos are well motivated and it seems that they are less price sensitive than those for culture,” explained Honian Tang’s thesis advisor, South Korean Changsok Yoo, of Kyung Hee University, South Korea.
If we take into account the results of the IFT study reflected in this table, World Heritage is the main reason for people from other Asian countries, other than Chinese, to visit Macau, as with tourists from western countries.