Credit card companies are expected to benefit from the imminent handover of Hong Kong to China with stronger merchant sales this year. Visa International executive vice-president and general manager for North Asia, Raymond Chan, said the occasion was expected to lead to another four to five percentage point increase in merchant sales in Hong Kong this year, bringing the growth rate to between 18 and 19 per cent. Merchant sales, or purchases with credit cards, accounted for the bulk of Visa card sales in Hong Kong, or more than 82 per cent out of the US$8.5 billion for last calendar year. Sales growth had remained consistent at between 18 and 21 per cent in the past five years with more people turning to credit cards instead of cash for purchases, Mr Chan said. There was still much room for growth he said. There were only 1.8 cards per qualified card holder in Hong Kong compared with three for some other countries. To tap the fast growing Asia-Pacific market, the credit card giant would spend up to $1 million on a five-month campaign to boost sales and promote loyalty among its gold card holders. The campaign, which would kick off next month, represents the largest and the first continuous rewards programme aimed at Visa Gold members in the region. The programme would allow members to immediately enjoy the rewards offered by the participating travel and retail partners without the need to accumulate bonus points as required in many other programmes introduced by the card issuers. Last year, Visa Gold cards achieved $32.5 billion worth of sales in the Asia Pacific region, up 23 per cent over previous year, with 10.7 million cards on issue in the region.