Companies in Hong Kong are growing more optimistic about hiring next year, with 37 per cent saying they plan to increase staff numbers in the first quarter, according to a recruitment firm's quarterly survey. That is nearly two points higher than the 35.2 per cent that planned to hire staff in the October-December period. It was the highest level in more than 21/2 years, the Hudson report said. Six months ago, that number stood at 23.6 per cent. Hudson polled about 2,000 multinational companies for its report last month. About 500 were based in Hong Kong. The good news came before the release today of the latest unemployment data, which is expected to show Hong Kong's jobless rate fell to 7.7 per cent last month from 8 per cent in October. Growing numbers of mainland tourists and strong consumer confidence are boosting the city's improving economy, with the rebound expected to continue through next year. 'Expectations for 2004 are much more positive than what they have been,' said Gary Lazzarotto, Hudson's chief executive for Asia. 'We're seeing more of a trend for basic salaries to increase. While we don't expect to see an explosion in salaries, we do expect to see some steady increase in salaries as companies are more able to grant those increments.' The accounting, financial services and consulting sectors are the most bullish on hiring, with 41.5 per cent planning to increase staff in the first quarter. Nearly 40 per cent of companies across all industries plan to hire more salespeople.