Limiting Shenzhen residents to an average of one visit to Hong Kong per week would only serve to test the waters for a cap on mainland visitor numbers rather than having a big impact in itself, lawmakers said yesterday.
They were responding to unconfirmed reports that a limit of 52 trips per year on holders of multiple-entry permits had been raised at a meeting between Hong Kong officials on Monday.
"A cap of 52 trips will have little impact, only stopping some parallel-goods traders from coming," said Michael Tien Puk-sun of the New People's Party, in reference to traders who buy goods in Hong Kong for resale across the border. But he said the move could be an important first step in limiting visitor numbers.
The stock market reacted calmly to the report in a Chinese-language newspaper yesterday - in contrast to earlier claims that mainland visitor numbers could be cut by 20 per cent, which hit retail and property shares.
Commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung met officials of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing on Monday to discuss limits to mainland visitors numbers amid rising public concern over the tourist influx. The rapid growth in tourism has led to concerns about overcrowding and competition for goods.
The talks included the multiple-entry permit scheme, but the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau did not confirm details of the possible cap.
Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching said the 52-trip limit would not even curb parallel-goods trading and permits should be scrapped completely.
"When someone has used up his quota of 52 trips, the parallel trading syndicate will just tell another person to apply for the permit," she said.
Economists said there was insufficient information on the use of such permits to assess the cap's likely impact.
"There is no information on how frequently the permit holders come to Hong Kong," Bank of East Asia chief economist Paul Tang Sai-on said. "We don't know how many made more than 52 trips per year."
Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu, director of the ACE Centre for Business and Economic Research, expected the impact to be mild, but said a proper analysis was needed.
Tourism-sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing agreed, saying the government should offer a full scientific analysis to Beijing, which will make the final decision on changes to visitor arrangements.