Final approval has been given to the first batch of Hong Kong travel agents to run group tours to the city and Macau from Guangdong province. The move is being viewed as a first step for agents outside the mainland to enter the lucrative outbound tourist market across the border. Two leading Hong Kong travel agents, Wing On and Hong Thai, confirmed they had received official approval from the Hong Kong and mainland tourism authorities to organise residents in Guangdong to join group tours to Hong Kong and Macau. This makes them pioneers in a market opened up under supplement III to the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa) signed between Hong Kong and the mainland in June 2006. The Hong Kong Trade and Industry Department, which is in charge of Cepa applications, confirmed it had approved 10 such applications from the city's travel operators by last month, though it refused to disclose their names. Despite months of waiting, both Wing On and Hong Thai are excited about the door being opened. Lanny Leung Kong-lan, chief executive of Wing On Travel Service, said the company was actively preparing for business in Guangdong, which would be launched in the first quarter of the year. 'We will provide some unique travel products that are totally new to this market,' Ms Leung said. As well as a joint venture it is running in Guangdong, the company also plans to set up more outlets in Hunan - one of the eight provinces opened up after Guangdong. Hong Thai Travel Service deputy general manager Daniel Chan Kin-pang said the company would soon begin a large-scale promotion across the border. 'I am quite optimistic [about this market],' he said. 'I think our quality service, wide network and managing experience will help us gain a foothold in the market.' Guangdong, with a population of more than 90 million, has long been one of the richest provinces on the mainland. Last year, of the 15 million mainland tourists that travelled to Hong Kong, about half were from the neighbouring province. One of the challenges facing Hong Kong travel agents is that most Guangdong tourists are used to visiting the city individually instead of joining tour groups. Hau Suk-kei, executive member of Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators' Association, has doubts about market prospects. 'I don't think this is a very attractive market. It is not that easy to get tourists to change their travel habits,' Mr Hau said. He added that different regional cultures, expensive promotions and lack of experience in running tours in the two destination cities would combine to make it a tough job for ambitious agents. However, Mr Hau said it would be worthwhile for the agents, who regarded this as a good opportunity to prepare for the opening up of the mainland outbound tourist market. 'It is a huge market that we are all looking forward to, and it's the biggest ambition for Hong Kong travel agents.'