Mainland Chinese tourists spark a backlash in Hong Kong

The city is struggling to keep up with the daily influx of visitors.

Designer shops are crowding out stores for locals. (Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg/Getty)

Hong Kong has a problem many cities would love: too many visitors. Each day, more than 80,000 mainland Chinese enter the former British colony, flying in from Shanghai or making the 20-minute drive from nearby Shenzhen. During the first week of October, a national holiday in China, that number went up to more than 100,000 a day.

The influx of tourists in recent years—three-quarters of which hail from the mainland—has sparked a backlash among locals. It has pushed the city far beyond its carrying capacity, says Roy Tam Hoi Pong, president of Green Sense, an environmental group that is campaigning to limit numbers to 50,000 a day. “There are too many people in the streets, too many people in the shopping malls,” he says. Last year, 28 million mainland tourists visited the city of seven million. “It is an invasion of our living space. It’s unacceptable,” Tam adds.

Those complaints may sound familiar to residents of some U.S. border towns, who have been grumbling about growing numbers of rude Canadian cross-border shoppers lately. Residents in Bellingham, Wash., have been pushing for American-only hours at a local Costco for respite from a tide of B.C. customers buying milk by the case.

In Hong Kong, the influx began after 2003, when Chinese officials began allowing mainlanders to cross over as individuals, rather than as part of tour groups. Last year, Chinese tourists spent 140 billion Hong Kong dollars (nearly $18 billion) in the city, up from HK$40 billion in 2005. That has been an economic boon, but there have been side effects. Shops that used to sell necessities to Hong Kong natives have switched to selling luxury goods to tourists, Tam says. That has meant higher retail prices and rising rents, which in turn have inflated the currency.

For China’s rising middle class, the attraction to Hong Kong is manifold, explains Daniel Ondrack, professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business who teaches in Hong Kong each summer. Tourists who might not be able to afford to visit Europe see Hong Kong, with its western brands and international cuisine, as the next best thing. With the emergence of China’s other “special administrative region,” Macau, as a gambling destination, mainland tourists make multi-day, triangular pleasure trips, taking the ferry from Hong Kong’s shops to Macau’s casinos.

It has all exacerbated long-standing cultural tensions between mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers. “They might think people coming across the border are ‘rustics,’ not very experienced international travellers,” Ondrack says. “And there are two types of crowding. One is population density. The other is pushiness.” Tam expresses a common complaint that mainland Chinese lack manners.

Even without legislation to limit tourism, relief may already be around the corner. China’s slowing growth has meant spending from October’s holiday week is expected to come in lower than last year. Indeed, Hong Kong’s economy contracted by 0.1% in its second quarter versus the previous three months.