Hong Kong could receive 70 million tourists annually within three years and 100 million within a decade, mostly from the mainland, according to Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Gregory So Kam-leung.
The forecast brought an angry response from critics who said officials had failed to take into account the impact of increased tourism on residents and should set limits. They also predicted more conflict between locals and mainland tourists.
Based on "rather conservative assumptions" of a steady rise in mainland visitors - who numbered 40.8 million last year - and a slight increase in overseas travellers, a government report forecast an increase to 70 million in 2017 from 54.3 million last year and to 100 million in 2023.
So said an assessment of control points, tourist attractions and public transport indicated the increase would not overwhelm capacity in 2017 but did not mention the effect in 2023.
As Hong Kong was an open port, "we cannot and should not set a limit to the number of visitors", he said, adding that tourism accounted for 4.5 per cent of the city's gross domestic product and provided 230,000 jobs.
"There will be an impact on citizens … they may not be able to get on the MTR and need to wait for the next train," he said.
Activist Roy Tam Ho-pong said this was already being felt.
"What the government says is a big contrast to how the citizens feel," Tam, of the Population Policy Concern Group, said. "I just waited for six MTR trains at Admiralty station before I could get on one."
He criticised the report for failing to include a survey of the local population's views.
"The streets are full of shops selling cosmetics, electronics, gold jewellery and pharmacies," he said. "Citizens are angry about the elimination of shops which cater to their needs."
Lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said a limit on tourist arrivals should be set. "Further increases will sharpen the antagonism between tourists and citizens," she said.
Tourism figures including Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung and tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing found the estimate reasonable. They said more hotels should be encouraged, especially in rural areas.
The government said it aimed to divert visitors to less conventional attractions and to Lantau. While its report said services could cope in 2017 there were warning signs. Three of the 14 immigration control points - the airport, Hung Hom and Shenzhen Bay - saw their highest number of passengers in the first half of last year, exceeding the designated handling capacity.
The average annual increase in passengers of 6.1 per cent in recent years was many times that of the increase in manpower for the Immigration Department and Customs, which was 0.1 per cent to 0.3 per cent. But the report does not comment on the capacity of shopping areas in the tourist areas of Mong Kok, Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay. A Tourism Commission spokesman said it was difficult to assess capacity scientifically. Accommodation could lag behind the increase. Hotel rooms will increase from 70,000 last year to 84,000 in 2017.
In response to suggestions for a mall at the border to cater for mainland shoppers, the government will conduct a feasibility study on the development potential of the northern New Territories, including Lok Ma Chau.
As most of the sites there were privately owned, it would be more efficient for the private sector to drive development, the report suggests.