Anger towards mainland visitors likely to worsen unless problems addressed

With mainland tourist numbers forecast to rise, local resentment towards the visitors is likely to worsen unless problems are addressed, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 10:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 10:01am

Feelings that ordinary residents' interests are being ignored in pursuit of the mainland tourist dollar have not abated in the two years since users of the Golden Forum website raised funds for a full-page advert in Apple Daily, attacking the visitors and describing them as "locusts".

There have already been two protests in the first quarter of this year, including one in Tsim Sha Tsui where abuse was directed at passing Putonghua-speaking shoppers.

The work of an extreme fringe, such ugly displays of discrimination have been condemned. But residents' resentment continues to grow. This anger isn't without cause, community leaders say, and it stems from the government's failure to address the strain that the influx of mainland tourists places on services.

Frustrations are especially acute in mainly housing districts such as To Kwa Wan, which has been used as a staging post for tour groups in recent years. Long-time resident Lin Mei-ying says the flood of visitors makes it difficult just to leave and enter her building every day.

"I live above the Fu Yuen restaurant on To Kwa Wan Road, which caters only to mainland tourists, serving them breakfast, lunch and dinner," she says. "The restaurant doesn't have space inside for them to sit while they wait for tables, so they stand outside and smoke and talk. They gather outside the entrance of my building, so it's hard to get in and out.

"There have even been incidents of people throwing eggs and water balloons [from the flats above] so that they are not so loud and troublesome."

It's such a struggle to get through the crowd assembled on the pavement, many passers-by resort to walking on the street instead, says another resident, Kwok Ho-chuen.

"It's dangerous because the restaurant is near a bus stop so there are lots of vehicles coming and going. I've seen elderly women honked by drivers to get out of the way."

He frequently calls the police to complain, but by the time they arrive the crowd has usually dispersed. Officers' attempts to contact the restaurant owner have failed to elicit any response.

Meanwhile, busloads of tourists arriving to join harbour cruises at the Kowloon City ferry pier have led to regular traffic jams in the evenings, Kwok says.

Hung Hom district councillor Pius Yum Kwok-tung is familiar with such tales of woe from residents. They recognise that tourists contribute to the economy (about 4.5 per cent of the GDP, according Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung) and do not take issue with mainland visitors coming to their neighbourhood, he says.

The problem is residents' quality of life is deteriorating. They must compete with visitors for items such as baby milk, for space in restaurants, on trains and on the streets.

"We've had many meetings to talk about traffic problems, but [district councillors] can't come up with solutions because it has to do with the Transport Department," Yum says. "These problems can only be resolved by the government, which has done no planning to deal with all these tourists,"

At the same time, sporadic squabbles have broken out over some visitors' failure to observe what Hongkongers have come to expect as responsible, civic-conscious norms - by jumping queues, slurping noodles in the MTR and, most recently, allowing a toddler to relieve himself in a Mong Kok street.

The sheer numbers give an indication of pressures on the city's ability to cope: mainland visitor numbers have swelled from 6.8 million people in 2002 to 34.9 million in 2012. Last year there were 41 million. In the first two months of this year alone, the city received 7.8 million mainland visitors.

By 2017, the government expects Hong Kong will receive 70 million visitors, and upwards of 100 million by 2023, mostly from the mainland. These projections prompted a noisy march through Mong Kok last month.

However, Professor Song Haiyan, dean of hotel and tourism management at Polytechnic University, believes the city has yet to reach its capacity for accommodating mainland tourists.

There are about 70,000 rooms in Hong Kong, ranging from hostel to five-star quality. With hotel occupancy averaging 80 per cent to 90 per cent, Song says, that means about 15 per cent of rooms are still available for overnight tourists, as 10 per cent to 12 per cent of rooms are added every year.

Availability will rise with new hotels opening at the Murray Building, Ocean Park and Disneyland. The Tourism Commission also plans to further develop the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal area into a tourism destination complete with a "hotel belt", as well as Lantau, which Song describes as underdeveloped.

Song argues we should make a distinction between tourists and parallel traders. "When you mix the two groups of people together, it feels like there's a lot of people. But parallel traders don't stay overnight; they come three or four times a day to buy goods that they can sell over the border," he says.

Hong Kong officials can work with the central government to control the number of parallel traders, he adds.

Citing London, a city with a similar population (8.3 million people to Hong Kong's 7.2 million) and land area (1,500 square kilometres compared to 1,200 square kilometres here), Song notes that the British capital does not feel as crowded, even though it receives 16 million international tourists and 116 million domestic visitors annually.

Song and some politicians have suggested making more tourist facilities available in other areas so that districts such as Central, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui are less congested.

But, if the experience of To Kwa Wan is any indicator, the proposal is unlikely to reduce friction. Mainland visitors are already shopping, dining and bedding down all across the city. From Tuen Mun to North Point, flats in residential blocks are being turned into guest houses or hostels, increasing chances of trouble or discord as streams of strangers keep lobbies and lifts busier than ever.

Problems with conversions came to light at the end of last year after a fire broke out in a North Point high-rise, where several residential floors were issued licences to operate as guest houses.

The Town Planning Board last month rejected an application by Hutchison Whampoa to turn the retail podium levels below the three residential blocks of Hunghom Bay Centre into an 86-room hotel.

Meanwhile, scholars such as Paul Yip Siu-fai have called for a cap on visitor numbers to strike a balance between ensuring a liveable environment for residents and an enjoyable experience for mainland tourists. The proposal may win some support from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who admitted last month that the leap in mainland visitors had "affected the daily lives" of residents.

"We are studying ways to regulate the growth... of incoming travellers. But we also want to increase our capacity to accommodate tourists," Leung said.

For now, Beijing has agreed not to increase the number of cities under the Individual Visit Scheme (which has brought a surge in visitor numbers since it was launched in 2003) nor expand the scope of the multiple-entry permit, tourism officials say.

Paul Zimmerman, CEO of lobby group Designing Hong Kong and a Southern District councillor, attributes surges in mainland visitors partly to a "distorted demand" because goods and services here incur lower taxes and are assured of a certain quality.

"That there's a major value gap in food safety, education and health care" draws mainlanders here to buy up items like milk powder, he says. "You can't call that tourism."

At the same time, the growth of "tour bus tourism" is aggravating traffic congestion, he says, noting that parts of Europe face similar problems. "Hong Kong has a small road network and it's a high-density city. Tour-bus travel is not healthy and areas like Stubbs Road, Repulse Bay, Ocean Park can't cope with the demand."

Moreover, he adds, tour groups don't bring in as much money as independent travellers - "These people don't spend as much as tourists on their own."

The government should take measures to reduce the number of non-franchised bus licences, limit coaches on the road or only permit smaller ones, he says. "We need to identify the problems and put controls in."

Zimmerman also worries what the flow of mainland vehicles will bring when the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge opens in 2016, saying no strategy is in place to deal with the traffic.

"We don't have the capacity for more private vehicles because Hong Kong is public transport-oriented. Although we are building more roads, these are highways to move traffic, not to deal with congestion in the various districts."

The solution, he says, is to make Hong Kong more liveable, for instance, by reducing the number of cars in the city centre and creating more open spaces. "That way more locals will go to these places and the tourists will follow."

Song also urges policy makers to strike a balance. "The Hong Kong government should also take a holistic view and think about local residents' needs, otherwise it causes dissatisfaction. We cannot avoid interactions with tourists - in fact we should encourage it as this enhances visitors' impressions of the place. But it is not beneficial to disrupt residential areas," he says.

"The misbehaviour of mainland tourists has been blown up disproportionately so people think all tourists from China behave the same. But for the most part they don't cause trouble - they buy things and then go home. We've only had a small number of serious incidents. We have to be fair."