The mainland's mammoth Lunar New Year scramble is as much about going home for the festive season as having the opportunity to travel. A proportion of the 3.4 billion journeys that will be made during the 40-day period will be to Hong Kong. Some people will see the extra deluge of tourists as a heightened inconvenience and intrusion, a cause for frowns, scowls and perhaps anger. Given the benefits of tourism to our city, though, we should instead be smiling and offering a friendly hand of welcome.
Those benefits may not come readily to mind as we negotiate crowded shopping streets and jostle for space on public transport in the weeks on either side of Hong Kong's official four-day break. Shelves empty of favourite products and reports of baby milk powder shortages and parallel traders cause annoyance. The closure of yet another long-standing restaurant, the victim of rent rises in districts being transformed by luxury goods stores, prompts fears that culture and heritage are being lost. Those with a chauvinistic attitude speak of the cross-border visitors in terms of hygiene and politeness.
Being protective of what we have is natural given our history and place in the nation. But we have always lived among tourists as our city has been a draw or stopover point for visitors. Tourism has long been a pillar industry and it is immensely important to the economy. It is easy to forget about just how significant the sector is as we compete for footpath space with yet another suitcase-toting tour group.
Tourism is Hong Kong's only major industry with sustained growth. It is being driven by mainland visitors, who last year comprised 70 per cent of the 48 million arrivals. Tourists spent HK$305 billion in 2011 and the economic sector accounted for more than 17 per cent of GDP. About 6.2 per cent of the workforce - more than 218,000 people - owed their jobs to foreign travellers. The retail and hospitality sectors benefit most, but the ripple effects extend throughout our economy.
Hong Kong is a free port and that means people and goods have to be allowed to flow freely. We cannot shut the door on tourists or pick and choose from where they come. A mainland scheme to allow more solo visitors has been put on hold, but it should not be left this way indefinitely. There has to be planning and infrastructure but, ultimately, the market will resolve needs. In keeping with our realities, it is in our every interest that we be hospitable and helpful to each and every tourist.