The 54 million people who visited Hong Kong last year included 41 million from the mainland, about half of whom arrived under the individual visit scheme. Some 10 million of those do not stay overnight, including a significant number of parallel traders who cause considerable inconvenience and disruption to local communities, especially those in the northern districts, as they snap up daily commodities such as milk powder.
The landscape and make-up of shops throughout the city has been distorted to meet the demands of the visitors, at the expense of local residents. It is neither healthy nor sustainable. Some of the local shops and our unique characteristics that appeal to tourists from elsewhere have been disappearing.
Furthermore, we are now told that the number of visitors will even shoot up to 70 million in three years' time and reach 100 million by 2023. With the completion of the high-speed rail link and the Zhuhai bridge, we are looking at even more mainland visitors in the future.
Our capacity for meeting the ever- increasing numbers has been questioned; it is, after all, a population of 1.3 billion versus 7 million. The Hong Kong government has been lagging in accommodating the rapid expansion. Simply, the number of mainland visitors has outgrown our capacity to accommodate them all. And that is bound to create problems: our transport system has become even more congested and our space has been compromised.
The government has been exploring ways to rectify the problem by, for example, making more space and shopping outlets available, especially near the border. However, the problem is here now: officials need to act more swiftly as the situation is nearing breaking point.
We do need new infrastructure to deal with increasing demand. But this will take time. In the meantime, extraordinary measures are called for, specifically to regulate numbers and control the influx of parallel traders.
Regulating the flow is nothing new. Our theme parks, Disneyland and Ocean Park, both implemented measures during the Lunar New Year: they restricted ticket sales to control visitor numbers.
This was a pragmatic approach and there was no element of discrimination. Such a measure certainly upset some people. However, the objective was to ensure the safety and comfort of those already in the parks.
By the same token, regulating the number of visitors to Hong Kong through certain measures, whether it be a land tax or some administrative measures, would be to ensure we are able to provide a quality service. Tourism is, of course, a major source of income for Hong Kong and one advantage we have over mainland cities is in providing a quality service so visitors have a pleasant experience in Hong Kong, rather than having to queue for hours and being ripped off by greedy and irresponsible merchants.
The idea of imposing a levy is worth exploring, with the aim of reducing the number of parallel traders. When the situation improves, the measures can be revisited and amended.
Another good example is how shops selling luxury brands treat customers. Once their shop is full, they ask other potential customers to queue outside and wait their turn. It's all done in a courteous manner. Some people do have to wait for a while and they usually do so without complaint; they are willing to queue because they want to buy something.
At the same time, those already inside are able to enjoy their shopping experience. And that includes store employees who do not become overstretched and are therefore able to provide a good service.
There are concerns that restrictions would make Hong Kong appear unfriendly to visitors. However, if we don't treat them well while they are here, they won't come back. True, some people don't care whether visitors return or not; there are plenty more mainlanders, they say. But our tourism service won't improve if money comes too easily. The best way to make our city a friendly place for all visitors is to focus on providing a quality service. Clearly, we cannot ignore the concerns of locals whose lives are being affected. And while flows of people are healthy and important to the city's development, if things become too crowded, we have no choice but to act.
We can strike a balance: make Hong Kong a liveable place for locals and enjoyable for visitors. The government's concern that any administrative measures would be seen in a negative light on the mainland is well understood. But, ignoring the concerns of locals and the capacity of our city is not a solution; the likelihood of conflict between visitors and locals is bound to increase.
Nevertheless, the "locusts" protest by a small group of people in Canton Road last weekend was unnecessary, destructive and ill-considered. It does not carry the support of the majority and it is certainly not the way to rectify the situation.
Paul Yip is professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong