With the dark shadow of Brexit looming ever larger, Ireland needs Hong Kong – its students, tourists, expertise in finance and shipping, and talent to work in its high-technology sector.
That was the conclusion of a seminar held in Hong Kong last Thursday by Asia Matters, Ireland's leading think tank on Asia.
"Brexit brings downsides for everyone," said Alan Dukes, a former Irish finance minister. "Our ambition is to remain in the European Union for the same reasons we joined 40 years ago. The downsides for us are an extra reason for us to look abroad for trade and investment opportunities. How can we participate in China's and Hong Kong's economy?"
Of all the 27 countries in the European Union, none is more affected than Ireland. It is the only EU country to share a land border with the United Kingdom. Of its exports to the EU, 80 percent pass through mainland Britain, mostly in lorry-driven containers. Ireland imports 30 percent of its goods from the UK, which accounts for 16 to 17 percent of its total exports.
On June 2, Cathay Pacific will launch a direct flight from Hong Kong to Dublin, the first direct flight between the Irish capital and a city in Asia. At four times a week, the direct flights present an ideal opportunity for Ireland to improve its relations with the city.
Dukes said that Ireland had to reduce the 80 percent of EU exports that went through the UK, because Brexit will cause lengthy customs delays at border posts.
"We need to increase our port capacity. Hong Kong can help us on this," he said.
"We are a center for financial services, to which Chinese and Japanese banks have added new services. We are talking about shipping finance and we need Hong Kong expertise. Dublin is the global center of aviation leasing. Every two seconds, somewhere in the world, an Irish-leased plane takes off."
Irish Consul-General Peter Ryan said that the new flights offered opportunities in five sectors – education, food and beverage, tourism, technology and financial services.
"In tourism, Hong Kong is the Asia center of Tourism Ireland's strategy," Ryan said.
Tourism Ireland has conducted a survey of the Hong Kong market and found that the most promising market is high-end and luxury tourism.
"People here want 'experienced-based' travel," said Robert Agnew, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and one of the authors of the survey.
"They have done Taipei and Bangkok. Shopping did not rank so high in the survey. They like 'clean and green'. The main way people choose holiday is through friends and family, second is social media and only third is tour operators. So we need a strong presence on Facebook and WeChat. Racing holidays are full of potential. 3,000 Hong Kong people own or part-own racehorses. Of the horses here, 10 percent are Irish," he said.
In 2017, more than 10 million overseas travelers visited Ireland, of whom 70,000 were mainland Chinese. Tourism Ireland expects the number of mainlanders to reach 100,000 by 2020.
Currently, 250 Hong Kong people are studying at schools or universities in Ireland, up from 50 in 2014. In the city, there are 6,000 people who graduated from Irish universities, as well as 5,000 Irish people, Ryan said.
“It is easy for young people here to arrange summer intern jobs in Ireland, in the hospitality sector, in finance or high-technology," Ryan said. He advised interested individuals to go to the website of the Consulate General of Ireland.
Stephen Phillips, director-general of Invest Hong Kong, said he has just returned from Ireland. “We must sell Hong Kong better in Ireland. It is a priority. We have two strong narratives – Hong Kong as a center to access the growth in Asia and as a center of innovation and connectivity.
“Look at the importance given in the budget this year to innovation, in fields like AI, robotics andfintech. There are great opportunities for Irish firms. Hong Kong wants clusters in AI and health-tech and will help with subsidies,” he said.
March 1 was the start of the month-long Hong Kong and Macau Irish Festival. This will include Gaelic football, rugby, whiskey-tasting, dance and music events and a St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 11 in Tamar Park. A green St.Patrick-brand tram will run the length of Hong Kong island.