21 February 2019
More mainland visitors doesn't necessarily mean more revenues for Hong Kong's tourism sector. Photo: wikimedia commons
More mainland visitors doesn't necessarily mean more revenues for Hong Kong's tourism sector. Photo: wikimedia commons

Mainland visitors: What the numbers hide

Hong Kong drew 6 million more tourists last year compared to 2013, with the annual figure reaching 60 million. Mainland visitors accounted for over 47.2 million of the arrivals. But only 16 million of the mainland visitors spent at least one night in Hong Kong.

At first glance, the statistics suggest that the other 31 million mainland visitors who came to the territory were not actually tourists in the traditional sense.

However, if we look more closely, we may find that interpretation of these numbers cannot be done in a straight forward way.

Because in reality, a lot of mainland visitors who stayed overnight in Hong Kong were not truly tourists, while many one-day visitors actually were.

Things have changed much since the “Individual Visit Scheme” was introduced back in 2003.

Thanks to the economic boom in China over the past decade, more and more wealthy mainlanders have bought properties in Hong Kong and many of them travel to the territory these days either on a business visa or a multiple-entry permit and stay for short periods on a regular basis.

On the other hand, many working class mainlanders now also travel to Hong Kong to work illegally in different industries — for example, as domestic helpers for new immigrant families.

As far as I know, many mainland women who used to work in the massage business in Shenzhen but have lost their jobs recently due to slowing consumption there are now coming to Hong Kong to work in small upstairs foot massage outlets across the territory.

Many of these illegal workers live in sub-divided flats with others, which can explain why the number of households living in sub-divided flats suddenly rose from 60,000 to over 90,000 just within a year.

If the economic slowdown on the mainland continues to deepen and the value of renminbi continues to slip against the Hong Kong dollar, it is highly likely that illegal workers from the mainland will once again swamp the various labor-intensive industries of Hong Kong, just like they did during the immediate period after the 1997 handover.

Therefore, it is important to note that more mainland visitors staying overnight in Hong Kong doesn’t necessarily mean they can generate more revenues for the local tourism sector. That is because many of these visitors are not tourists at all.

What makes the problem even more complicated is the issuing of the multiple-entry permits.

On surface, the purpose of introducing this policy was to make it more convenient for Shenzhen residents to travel to Hong Kong, but in fact it was an attempt to speed up the process of assimilating Hong Kong into the Mainland.

It is estimated that 18 million people came to Hong Kong with such permits last year.

Since the power of issuing these permits rests entirely with the Shenzhen authorities, it is almost impossible for us to know how many permits have been granted exactly over the years.

Given the rampant corruption among mainland officials, we have every reason to believe that many of these permits have been issued to people who were not eligible at all.

It is said that the power to approve visas under the Individual Visit Scheme will be delegated from the provincial and municipal administration to county authorities on the mainland soon. If this is true, the situation in Hong Kong is very likely to get worse.

There is no doubt the policy of the multiple-entry permits did bring some economic benefits to our city, but the rising social costs associated with it must not be overlooked. Tourism only accounts for 4 percent of our total GDP, and therefore it is not much of an irreplaceable economic pillar. The government needs to give the people of Hong Kong a sense that something is being done to protect our interests and preserving our way of life.

I believe it’s time for the authorities to safeguard the interest of our citizens and push for the abolition of the multiple-entry permits. Even if the attempt fails, the Immigration Department should at least be allowed to exercise more discretion in restricting the daily number of mainlanders visiting Hong Kong on these permits, through executive measures. Any suspicious-looking parallel trader or smuggler must not be allowed to enter the territory.

Unfortunately, all that our Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying did was praise the economic achievement of Shenzhen and its contribution to Hong Kong’s economy, and suggesting that we learn some lessons from the city across the border.

During a recent meeting of the Commission on Strategic Development, Leung and the Central Policy Unit even asked members to actively put forward suggestions on how Hong Kong can better coordinate with the 13th Five Year Plan of the mainland. He made the remarks despite public apprehensions that the suggestions might not be in the best interest of Hong Kong.

Given that our chief executive is unmindful of our interests, how can we possibly expect him to act tough in relation to the catastrophe brought about by the multiple-entry permits and grey goods trade? Can we expect Leung to take the issue head on when he doesn’t even bother to look into it more closely?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 25.

Translation by Alan Lee

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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