Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has hinted for the first time that his administration is considering controls on the number of tourists in Hong Kong.
He admitted that the rising volume of visitors in recent years had "affected the daily lives" of residents, especially commuters and shoppers.
He said: "The government is aware of this, and we are studying ways to regulate the growth … of incoming travellers.
"But we also want to increase our capacity to accommodate tourists."
His comments came after Zhang Dejiang , Beijing's official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, urged the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the National Tourism Administration to work with Hong Kong officials to assess the city's tourism capacity. Leung has previously snubbed calls to review the individual visit scheme, launched in 2003, which allows 270 million people from 49 cities to visit Hong Kong without joining tour groups.
Last year, the number of visitors rose 11.7 per cent to 54 million. They included 41 million from the mainland - with more than half arriving under the individual visit scheme.
The influx has boosted the retail, catering and property sectors in the city, but has annoyed residents by causing congestion on public transport and at popular leisure spots.
However, Leung refused to elaborate on how visitor numbers may be adjusted, such as whether the individual traveller scheme would be reviewed.
"As it involves discussion with the central government, as well as provincial and municipal authorities, we should not discuss what we might do until we come up with answers," he said.
Leung was speaking yesterday after taking a boat trip to inspect progress on an artificial island being built near Lantau for border checkpoints on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.
Leung said the government would consider building hotels and shopping malls on a commercial site at the airport and the artificial island.
He said this could alleviate pressure on existing shopping areas and commercial facilities.
In January, a government report predicted visitor numbers could increase to 70 million in 2017 and 100 million in 2023, fuelling concerns about the city's capacity to cope.
But a month later, Leung rejected a pan-democrat proposal to tax visitors arriving by land to curb the influx.
"They have created massive job opportunities … we should not be conceited before getting rich," the chief executive said at the time.
Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said while he agreed with studying the "structure" of the tourism industry, there was no need to curb visitor numbers.
"It might send the wrong message - that Hong Kong no longer welcomes travellers," Yiu said.