IT is noon and in Admiralty, a crowd mills around the bus terminal. 'Just follow the queue,' says an attendant. Children, young couples and sprightly elderly clamber aboard an air-conditioned single-decker bearing a sign: Metro City, Phase II. We are about to go on a journey that growing crowds of financially prudent Hong Kongers are enjoying at the expense of cash-strapped property developers. Making the most of enticing freebies, including transport, food, soft drinks and trinkets, thousands are taking weekend excursions to visit show flats, even though most have no intention of buying into the depressed market. Maybe you fancy a day trip to Tai Po, Tseung Kwan O or Tung Chung. How about a run out to Ma On Shan, Tin Shui Wai or Fanling? Even if you do not enjoy the ride, there are rewards when you arrive. During the economic downturn, it is Hong Kong's most cost-efficient entertainment. 'Going to the cinema or shopping still costs money,' smiles Kwun Tong housewife Ng Wing-kiu. 'But this costs us absolutely nothing.' With two private flats already, she and her husband have neither need nor money for another. However, the attractions of a free day out for them and their two children were too strong to resist. After wandering around the development in Tseung Kwan O, the Ngs hurried on to a shuttle bus heading for another residential project in Fanling. 'Mama, is this the bus that takes us to the country park?' her young son askes hopefully. He had mistaken the promotion for a picnic. It takes about 50 minutes from Admiralty to Metro City. After emerging from the gloom of Tseung Kwan O Tunnel, arrays of towering new residential buildings give a note of artificial neatness to this formerly rural area near Rennie's Mill. 'Look, schools, restaurants, a shopping centre - everything's there,' muses a visitor. 'And an MTR station will also be constructed right in front.' (He fails to mention that the Po Lam Station will not be operating, according to an MTRC spokesman, until 2002.) Estimates of the number of visitors vary, but sales agents claim more than 20,000 converge on single developments every weekend. And as prices contract, crowds are swelling. 'Anyone with an invitation card or cash order, come this way,' shouts an agent, attempting to sift alighting bus passengers into queues of those who may buy and those who have no intention whatsoever. The freebies are soon handed out: sun-caps, emblazoned with Henderson Land's logo, bottled water and paper fans are in plentiful supply. 'Spectacular! This one is decorated with Coca-Cola bottles, caps and collectables,' exclaims a satisfied visitor. In orderly batches (and after queueing for up to 90 minutes), the new arrivals are herded into one of three show units. One is tastefully decorated with expensive-looking European furniture. They are certainly small. 'But the price is attractive at only $2,838 per square foot,' says an agent, one of about 100 on-site. 'To buy a 515-square-foot flat, you only pay $1,460,000.' Having squeezed past walls of bank counters, where dozens of staff representing 17 lenders (including Hongkong Bank, Hang Seng Bank, Liu Chong Hing Bank and Citic Ka Wah) thrust forward mortgage plans, the inexperienced can easily feel trapped. 'We provide the best rates - you're welcome to make comparisons,' yell agents competing to get a sale from a couple, who gather up all the pamphlets and walk away. Experienced agents can identify prospective buyers, according to a Henderson senior sales manager. 'There are signs. Usually they show interest in much more detailed information and they're also willing to discuss figures. Sometimes they'll be using a calculator.' But amid the din and hustle, few are signing anything. The aroma of hot meatballs, sausages and cake has become a pleasant distraction. People tired of queueing for show flats are now in line for a free serving on a paper plate and a cup half-filled with cola. Two women discuss the quality of the food. 'It tastes quite good,' says one. 'Not bad at all,' chimes in her friend. Some go back for seconds, thirds . . . there is no limit. Another 'must' is the filling in of forms to join lucky draws for prizes of gold, a parking place or a 'good quality' flat. For most of the visitors, the prize flat is the closest they will get to acquiring one. Lo Yuen-yee, on a visit with her companion, Tse Kim-man, both 23, admits frankly: 'No, we won't buy one. For us, today is just something different from other routine things like window-shopping or watching a movie.' They have previously been to Tsuen Wan's Discovery Park, jointly owned by HKR International and New World Development, and will perhaps go to the Villa Oceania in Ma On Shan, courtesy of Sino Land. 'We choose to visit only new residences that have been freshly launched because the hospitality is better,' Mr Tse adds. 'Last month we had the best-ever reception in Grand Palisades in Tai Po - there was a German gourmet carnival theme with beers and delicacies.' Leung Wing-shian, a retired civil servant, 52, and his wife, 48, of North Point, say the free days out have become their hobby since they attended pre-sales for Cheung Kong's Kingswood Villas in Tin Shui Wai. 'Now we go whenever there's a new launch,' Mrs Leung says. 'We learn all we know about the property market from visiting show flats where swarms of property agents and bank-loan staff are conveniently available for consultancy.' Asked if she would have come if there had not been free transport, she shakes her head. But Leung Tak-kwai and his wife, Leung Bik-lin, spend one hour queueing before deciding to go home. They did not bother to see the show flats. But it hardly mattered - they were never going to buy, anyway. 'We had waited for one whole hour and there'd be another hour's wait if we were to get inside,' Mr Leung says. Did he think the trip was a waste of time? 'We have at least got a brochure.' All the way from Mongkok just to collect a brochure? 'We've got nothing else to do, anyway,' replies Mr Leung. 'We've lost nothing. We come here mainly to see the neighbouring environment and to see if the transportation is convenient.' Buying is out of the question - the value of their 20-year-old flat has fallen too sharply for the couple to afford a new one. Ng Hoi-yan has become so experienced he can reel off differences in the style and substance of the marketing pitches. 'The agents at Nan Fung Plaza in Tseung Kwan O are so much more annoying,' he says. 'They follow you in and out, trying hard to talk you into making the deposit. 'They offer nothing, no water, no snacks. And the bus service is closed too early. Quality reception is taken for granted nowadays - no wonder it's so quiet over there.' Some find it embarrassing to admit they have no buying intention. They wonder whether it is right to enjoy the hospitality without putting down any money. But one sales manager says they have nothing to worry about. 'This may just be their preliminary step that can eventually lead to an ultimate purchasing action,' he says. 'The fact that they're here suggests they have an actual need. So it's absolutely possible they will change their mind.' Rejecting the view that many come to take advantage of the freebies, he says, diplomatically: 'We see and treat every visitor as a potential buyer. The more who come, the more sales we can possibly make. It's directly proportional.'