ESTIMATES by the Hong Kong Tourist Association (HKTA) for a 7 per cent rise in the number of visitor arrivals and an 11 per cent increase in tourist receipts this year may be a bit on the conservative side. After all, this is an historic year in which the territory will take centre stage. Millions of people around the world, fed increasingly on news relating to Hong Kong, will no doubt be tuning in to watch the handover on television. Those who manage to get a booking probably will have long shopping lists, fishing especially for anything emblazoned with the magic number 1997. From here on, there can be no excuse for not knowing whether Hong Kong is in China, Japan, or Singapore - as we know was often the case in the past. Add to the equation the amount of propaganda being dished out on China's resumption of sovereignty on the mainland itself, where more than a billion people have been regaled with tales of the glorious occasion. The countdown clocks ticking away the days in the border town of Shenzhen and in Tiananmen Square attest to this. The number of potential visitor arrivals from the mainland cannot be underestimated. While not all mainlanders have the financial means by which to visit this fountain of wealth - and not all will be permitted - it will most certainly be on the top of the places to see list of those who do. The HKTA, anticipating record levels of interest from north of the border, will even open an office in Beijing before the end of this month. Last year, the number of visitors to Hong Kong grew 15 per cent to 11 million and visitor spending increased 12.8 per cent to a record $84.5 billion, reaffirming the tourist industry's rank of second position in terms of foreign exchange earnings, behind trade. The number of visitors from China has been rising rapidly in the past few years as the handover has drawn closer. Last year, mainland tourists came a very close second in the spenders table, pumping $15.2 billion into the system. Japanese visitors were ahead, spending as much as $18.5 billion. The Taiwanese came in at third place, spending $13.7 billion despite jitters earlier in the year when war games began off their coastline. Apart from the events pertaining directly to the handover at midnight on July 1, major draws include the World Bank annual conference later in the year. There was even a plan kicking around at one point to temporarily charter a shipping liner to cater for the overspill. So why are estimates for this year's earnings growth lower than those achieved last year? In calculating these estimates, the HKTA said it had taken several factors into account, notwithstanding the handover. Firstly, the assessments were based on the already high growth in the number of visitors in the previous few years - growth rates that would be the envy of Disney. Then there are the practical limitations, such as a cap on the number of slots available at Kai Tak airport and on the number of hotel rooms. If these factors do, as the HKTA's lean estimates show, lead to slower growth in tourism this year, the following years should be a boon. The opening of Chek Lap Kok airport and the supply of between 1,000 and 2,000 new hotel rooms in the next few years should keep the Hong Kong economy buoyant at a time when external factors threaten to undermine the territory's trade performance.