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As number of Mainland visitors grows, what can Hong Kong do to woo international tourists?

By Emily Man, Eric Park

Crowds of mainland tourists jostle for the best photo-shooting spots with Victoria Harbour in the background at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Avenue of Stars, oblivious to the curious looks from other tourists. A slightly different scene plays out in Sheung Shui, a new town on the Hong Kong-Mainland border every day. Here, mainland visitors with multiple-entry permits crowd the entrances of dispensaries, where they stock up on milk powder and other daily necessities, either for personal use or for illegal resale later.

The influx of mainland tourists with high purchasing power has brought massive revenues to the retail industry, but it has also caused inconvenience to local residents and led to conflicts between Hongkongers and mainlanders, which boiled over last month in protests against parallel traders in Shatin and Tuen Mun that saw police use pepper spray inside a shopping mall.

It is not just the inconvenience that has triggered resentment in Hong Kong, but also the changes to the local landscape, with the ever increasing number of shops and businesses which seem to merely cater to mainland tourists.

According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, Hong Kong accommodated more than 44 million mainland visitors last year, which means that the Mainland continues to be the territory’s biggest source of visitors. In 2009, mainland visitors accounted for about 60 per cent of total arrivals. That has steadily increased to almost 79 per cent in five years.

Crowds of Mainland paraellel traders gathering at Sheung Shui Station
Crowds of Mainland paraellel traders gathering at Sheung Shui Station

The government is aware of this trend and the Hong Kong Tourism Board has put its focus on expanding international markets and maintaining a diverse portfolio of visitors, in order to uphold Hong Kong’s image as Asia’s World City.

The board’s Work Plan for 2015-2016 will allocate nearly half of its marketing budget of HK$352 million to promotions targeting overnight visitors. Of this, 76 per cent will be spent on reaching out to international markets. But before the efficacy of these measures can be seen, companies targeting non-mainland tourists are already struggling to attract business.