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The trouble with tourists

The trouble with tourists

Few cities have as much at stake in responding to the changes in the Pearl River Delta as Hong Kong. For years it was the dominant presence in the PRD – at least from an international perspective – and it profited hugely from its economic transformation. But its former success means that it has most to lose as the context changes. Giving up its role as the global gateway to the region, Hong Kong must now forge a new path.

China’s boom is opening up new opportunities for Hong Kong to prosper. But the impact has sometimes been unsettling, upending how the city sees itself and its relations with its gigantic neighbour.

Take the loosening of visa regulations for visitors from mainland China after 2003, which allowed residents of Beijing, Shanghai and eight Guangdong cities to visit Hong Kong individually, rather than as part of tour groups. Designed to help Hong Kong recover from the virtual shutdown of the SARS epidemic, the new rules were a bonanza for the tourism and retail sectors. Further relaxation in visa restrictions saw arrivals from China increase more than three-fold to more than 46 million people by 2014, or about three quarters of Hong Kong’s annual visitor total.

Yet some Hongkongers greeted the influx with growing irritation, annoyed that their local stores were being converted into outlets selling luxury goods to Chinese visitors and complaining that popular districts were swamped with tourists. Rising property prices were blamed on cash-rich buyers from the mainland too, while so-called parallel traders, who buy suitcases-full of goods like milk powder and toiletries to resell across the border, were targeted by angry protests.

46 million

Chinese tourist trips to Hong Kong in 2014; last year visitor numbers fell slightly

Last year the visitation scheme was tightened a little and the total number of mainland tourists then fell for the first time since the city was returned to Chinese rule almost 20 years ago. Almost immediately, Hong Kong’s retailers were bemoaning the drop-off in sales of jewellery and watches, while its tourism bosses expressed fears that Chinese spending was being lost to newer holiday choices in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

The situation underlined Hong Kong’s dependence on China’s economy for its tourism and trade. But the local debate about the tourist influx also stirred a reaction in China, where some have a sense that Hongkongers are unpatriotic and unappreciative, especially when the city makes so much money from its mainland visitors. This is the conundrum that Hong Kong has to solve: how to square its realisation that it can only prosper by integrating more deeply with the PRD with its deep-rooted psychology that it should somehow stand apart from its neighbour, separated by its laws and lifestyle.

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