Comparing the Impacts of SARS and COVID-19 on the Number of Visitors to Hong Kong
Both the SARS in 2003 and the COVID-19 in 2020 hard hit the tourist industry in Hong Kong. The plummets in the number of visitors in the wake of the epidemics can show how serious the impacts are on the retail sales amounts and thus the GDPs. Since both of them requires social distancing, quarantine and travel bans to stop the spread, the number of visitors is one of the best candidates in figuring out their immediate impacts on the economy.
In 2003, after the Spring Festival, Hong Kong was hit by an unprecedented SARS attack. Schools were closed, the city was frozen, new deaths were reported every day, everyone was at risk! Visitors were deterred from coming, the number of inbound tourists dropped sharply by almost 65% in April 2003. Then it continued to record a decline of about 68% in May. The tourism industry was depressed.
Air traffic also plummeted at a similar scale, probably because airplanes are one of the most easily-transmitted means of transportation. For example, Hong Kong International Airport ’s passenger trips fell by 69% in April 2003 and 80% in May!
Yet, Unlike COVID-19, SARS stayed in the city in less than three months, and then it is gone. The number of air passengers has regained its trajectory, with a yoy increase of 2.4 times, 4.0 times and 1.7 times in April-June 2005.
Seventeen years later, a SARS-like coronavirus, called COVID-19, attacked the same city again but with much stronger forces! It does not only attack Hong Kong, but this time it becomes a pandemic and is attacking almost the whole world severely.
Hong Kong is one of the international traffic hubs, air traffic is naturally very busy. In fact, the Hong Kong International Airport is one of the busiest airports in the world, and the number of passengers is rising up to more than 7 million people per month in 2018–2019! (Figure 1)
However, the COVID-19 forces the government to implement a partial travel ban on visitors from Mainland China in Feb, and then a global travel ban on visitors from most parts of the world. Figure 1 shows that the number of passengers drops from about 6m in Jan to just 1.883m in Feb. The figure of March is expected to be even lower.
If you compare the impacts of SARS and COVID-19 on the passenger volume of Hong Kong International Airport (Figure 2), you will find that the magnitude of Feb 2020 is almost the same as that of SARS in Apr 2003. Since we have data only updated to February figures, and the pandemic situation is still intensifying, a second wave of spreading seems to be causing the number of confirmed cases rising, it may break the SARS record next month.
The plummet in the number of visitors is even more severe than that of the number of airline passengers, as there are still some residents who have to fly back home, and some overseas students are even forced to return immediately. In contrast, the number of visitors to Hong Kong can completely evaporate in one day as tourists are paying for leisure and fun, no one would pay to take unnecessary risk. Furthermore, there are travel bans and/or red travel warnings issued by the governments, even if the tourists dare to come, the government officials would not allow them to get in.
Comparing the impacts of SARS and COVID-19 on the number of visitors to Hong Kong, the strength of the impact of COVID-19 in Feb has been much stronger than the first month of SARS (Figure 2). In Figure 2, it shows that in the wake of SARS, the number of visitors fell about 70%, and then rose rapidly. But the number of visitors plummeted by 96%! It fell from 3.2m in Jan to just 199,000 people in Feb, which must be a record, and it is hard to break, as the limit of decline is only 100%.
It is expected that the number of tourists in March is still low, because the pandemic is now spreading around the world, travel bans are implemented not just in Hong Kong, but also in many countries. Will the decline further touch the lower limit? Who knows!
Hong Kong has been attacked by new types of coronavirus twice, reflecting some serious hidden systematic risks in the region, and both are imported indicating that the situation cannot be rectified by local capabilities. Unlike other economic or public issues, incidents of virus spread cannot be prevented by fiscal policy or local legislation. It is reasonable to expect more epidemics to occur in the future. Thus, in considering long-term economic development policies, we should avoid over-reliance on tourism as one of the pillars of Hong Kong’s economy. We must also be careful not to over-rely on the source of tourists from a single economy so as to be more economically resilient.
[A Chinese Version is available at https://vocus.cc/eyanalysispoliecon/5e6ff17bfd89780001d4a14e]