Hong Kong's image as a tourist destination is being tarnished by queues of up to an hour long for incoming passengers at the immigration counters of Chek Lap Kok, the city's tourism board chief warns.
James Tien Pei-chun has twice since September written to Director of Immigration Eric Chan Kwok-ki to alert him to complaints over the queues for non-resident passengers and asking for urgent action to reduce waiting times.
Complaints to the Tourism Board - echoed by postings on international traveller websites - suggest the queues are an increasing niggle for overseas visitors and Tien says it is hindering Hong Kong's drive to be Asia's 'world city'.
The Immigration Department says it is tackling the problem and claims that while there are bottlenecks, its own surveys show that fewer than 2 per cent of non-resident visitors queue for 15 minutes or more at the airport.
Tien suggests the issue could be solved with greater flexibility over the manning of immigration counters, and the hiring of '15 to 20 more immigration officers' to man empty desks at peak arrival times.
'We have one of the most efficient cities in the world but queues at immigration in the airport are probably the most inefficient part of Hong Kong - unfortunately, this is the first impression many people have of Hong Kong,' he said.
'People arriving in Hong Kong find themselves waiting for an hour when there are only 10 out of 20 counters open. Why not open 18 or even 20 counters at these peak times to reduce the waiting times?
'It isn't going to cost that much more money. It is a question of being flexible and I really think they should be more flexible.'
Tien said it was unacceptable for passengers stepping off a 15-hour flight from New York or a one-hour flight from Taiwan to face a wait of up to one hour or more at immigration.
He said the long queues could not be blamed on a surge in visitor arrivals, as most travellers came overland from the mainland.
'If you look at the traffic at the airport, it hasn't increased that much by comparison. Our airport is still a long way from its capacity. It handles 50 million people a year but it can accommodate 70 million. So what will the queues be like when it does reach capacity?'
Tien's argument is supported by comments on popular traveller websites such as Skytrax. One US visitor said on a forum: 'It took almost an hour to clear immigration. There were so many people waiting in line and only three officers were working, which is unacceptable in an international airport.'
The Immigration Department declined to give an interview on the subject but said in a statement that it had met its 2011 performance targets of allowing 98 per cent of Hong Kong residents and 95 per cent of visitors to queue for no longer than 15 minutes at the airport. More than 98 per cent of visitors and 100 per cent of Hong Kong residents queued for less than 15 minutes between January and November last year, it said.
Complaints to the department about long queues had actually fallen from 20 in 2009, to 11 in 2010 and to eight last year, it said.
'The airport division of the Immigration Department takes every effort to improve the passenger clearance efficiency and meet the performance pledge,' it said. 'But our pledge may not be achievable during certain daily peak hours or peak periods or in complicated cases. For example, sudden bunching of arriving passengers in a short period of time may outnumber our available resources during the period.'
The department says it ensures during holiday periods that it minimises approval of leave applications, arranges for staff to work overtime and drafts in reinforcements.
The Airport Authority said complaints from travellers about the time it takes to undergo immigration procedures rose from three in 2010 to 17 from January to November last year.
'We keep in close contact with the Immigration Department, particularly over arrival peaks. We notify the Immigration Department about any expected high inflow of passengers so that the department may plan their manpower deployment and make relevant arrangements as they find appropriate.'
The record number of visitors recorded in Hong Kong last year. Travellers from the mainland made up a large slice of this figure