Hong Kong, Macau feel strain of tourists from China

They come, they spend, and they get on the local people's nerves.

Resentment over mainland visitors ratcheted up here and in Macau, following the descent of nearly three million tourists on the two cities over the Chinese New Year week - a record high.

While the arrivals kept the tills ringing, the strains on infrastructure led Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun Ying to acknowledge on Tuesday that the influx of tourists was "overwhelming" the city and becoming a problem. He pledged, his government will not "blindly chase growing tourist numbers" but "ensure the daily lives of people are not affected".

Hong Kong saw a record 48.6 million tourist arrivals last year, mainly from the mainland. The number of Chinese tourists rose 24 per cent from 2011, making up 72 per cent of all arrivals.

Macau received 28 million, 17 million from the mainland.

Leung did not specify what steps would be taken, but legislators say a 10-year-old individual visitor scheme (IVS), which allows mainlanders to enter Hong Kong individually rather than as part of group tours, should be reviewed. Two-thirds of mainland visitors here last year entered Hong Kong in this manner.

Executive council member Starry Lee, for instance, says that Hong Kong should have a "stronger say" in negotiating with the central government on the number of such visas issued.

Calls for "sustainable tourism" have also been made in Macau, where altercations broke out at border crossings last week. The government said it is improving checkpoints and looking at ways to disperse tourists across town.

In Hong Kong, visitors packed popular attraction spots, from Wong Tai Sin Temple to Ocean Park, which suspended ticket sales two days in a row.

Meanwhile, a shortage of hotel rooms forced a group of mainland tourists to sleep in a coach. Another had the tour cut short.

The latest developments come after regular run-ins between mainlanders and Hong Kongers in recent years. There have been episodes of tent-slashing at camp sites, and shouting matches at towns near the border as visitors sweep stores clean of products. Meanwhile, residents bemoan the loss of local shops or eateries replaced by chain stores that seem to cater to monied tourists.

Writer Pearl Liu, 24, a former Tianjin resident who now lives in Shatin in the New Territories, says: "I can understand why Hong Kongers are frustrated."

A month before Chinese New Year, chocolates, biscuits and Yakult "almost disappeared" from supermarket shelves. "Of course, the milk powder and diaper section is always like this as they are the tourists' favourite."

Meanwhile, smaller shops like toy and book stores made way for luxury-brand stores like Marc Jacobs and jewellery chains - "obviously for tourists", says Liu.

Blame has been laid at the door of the IVS, which ironically was conceived as a "gift" to Hong Kong and Macau in 2003 to help boost their ailing economies following the Sars crisis.

That year, Hong Kong saw just 15.5 million visitors. The number shot up to 21.8 million in 2004, of whom 4.3 million arrived under IVS. This has since increased to 23.1 million last year.

Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) chairman James Tien told The Straits Times that calls to restrict the IVS and cap the number of visitors run counter to Hong Kong's free market ethos, stressing that the industry provides jobs for a wide swathe of society. It hires 190,500 - 5.4 per cent of the workforce - and contributes 3.5 per cent to Hong Kong's GDP.

Tien acknowledges the challenge of grappling with the increased number of visitors. For instance, there have been complaints about falling service standards in recent years.

"But we don't need to do anything, except build more hotel rooms. Meanwhile, the market will set a limit - when tourists hear hotels are full and flights are expensive, they will not come."

On whether Hong Kong is overly dependent on the mainland market given its stated aim of a diverse visitor profile, HKTB executive director Anthony Lau says if day-trippers are taken out of the equation, mainlanders comprise just 60 per cent of visitors - a balance "we are comfortable with".

Some of the social tensions, he notes, arise from those who cross the border from Guangdong for the day, and these should be resolved in ways outside the IVS' purview. Suggestions include building a border shopping town for such visitors.

Even as the rancour in Hong Kong and Macau grows, Taiwan - the third economy which mainlanders can visit under the IVS - is lobbying to increase its daily quota from 1,000 to 2,000.

But its government said it is working on a raft of measures to ensure that the anticipated hike would not lead to unhappiness.

Said Wu Mei Hung, a spokesman for the Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan's top mainland policy planning body: "A set of comprehensive measures is necessary to avoid problems like those in Hong Kong."

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