With more than 65.1 million visitors coming into Hong Kong in 2018, initial expectations for 66 million visitors for 2019 were not considered farfetched. However, the forecast was predicated on 52 million visitors from mainland China coming into the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), a 4% increase from the 50 million that came in the previous year.
For the beginning of 2019, the outlook appeared conservative. China's slowing domestic economy, weakening RMB, and trade war with the US was showing little evidence of deterring visits to Hong Kong at the time.
Even as the protests began, total tourism numbers were still up 4% for the first eight months of 2019, with 4.9% more mainland visitors coming than in the same period a year ago. However, as social unrest intensified, the numbers began to fall.
July's 4.8% tourist drop was followed by August's 39.1% decline, when protesters disrupted Hong Kong's main airport and subways. So, which Asian economies, and potentially companies, will benefit from this decline?
Heading to Southeast Asia
Despite the RMB losing almost 10% against the USD since the beginning of 2018, outbound Chinese tourism continues to grow and appears to have recovered from a seasonal slump. In July, Singapore welcomed 390,000 travelers from mainland China, an 8% increase from a year ago, which represented a 46% jump from the previous month.
In Thailand, Chinese arrivals jumped almost 19% from a year earlier in August following a 6% increase in July, as the tourism numbers appear to have recovered following the Phuket boat accident in 2018. In the Philippines, 43% more Chinese holidaymakers visited in July compared to a year earlier.
In addition to the geographic proximity, Southeast Asian currencies also depreciated against the US dollar, but have also maintained a relatively stable exchange rate with the RMB, strengthening the draw for the Chinese.
This is good news for regional economies, where tourism accounts for as much as 13% of the Philippine economy and 10% of Thailand's. This is also welcome news for Indonesia and Singapore, where tourism accounts for 6% and 4% of GDP respectively.
What to invest in
Investors should be selective toward general tourist-related investment themes. While regional hotels do benefit from increasing numbers of patrons, heavy development has created overcapacity and competition in this space. Investors should also consider that increasing tourism does not necessarily lead to a proportionate increase in spending, as evidenced in Macau.
I continue to like Asian airports, which are less sensitive to spend per trip, and primarily focused on the total trips. Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport saw 6.5 million travelers in August, an increase of 3.4% from year earlier, while Shenzhen Bao'an International saw a 5.8% increase over the same month. This came amid Hong Kong airport seeing a 12.5% drop to 6 million travelers.
Foolish last thought
With everything, politics is involved. Despite the lower spend per visitor, countries are attracting Chinese travelers not only by loosening travel restrictions, but by also strengthening ties with Beijing. I believe Southeast Asia airports should benefit as more Chinese avoid North Asia where geopolitical relations have soured.
A version of this article originally appeared on our Fool Asia site. For more coverage like this head over to Fool.hk.en.