China restricts travel in bid to curb shopping trips

A shopper waits for a train at Sheung Shui Station in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty

A shopper waits for a train at Sheung Shui Station in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty

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CHINESE authorities curbed some travel from mainland China to Hong Kong yesterday to cool tensions over a growing influx of shoppers that has angered residents.

The public security bureau in neighbouring Shenzhen will stop issuing multiple visit passes to people who live in the border city and instead issue only once-a-week travel passes.

The move comes as anger simmers over the rising numbers of cross-border mainland Chinese travellers, who have been blamed for voracious buying of smartphones, cosmetics, medicine and luxury goods that distorts the local economy.

Chinese favour baby formula bought in Hong Kong over domestic brands after repeated food safety scares and because of the city’s reputation for authentic goods.

Hong Kong activists held several protests earlier this year that erupted into chaos when protesters scuffled with the tourists.

The central government in Beijing has adjusted the travel policy because, “alongside the unceasing growth of mainland residents travelling to Hong Kong and growing pressure on mainland and Hong Kong immigration ports, there is growing contradiction between visitor numbers to Hong Kong and Hong Kong tourism’s capability,” the official Xinhua News Agency report said.

Many cross-border shoppers work for shadowy networks that organise the resale of the goods back in mainland China for a profit, in what’s known as parallel trading.

Hong Kong’s leader, chief executive Leung Chun-ying, said the policy is “directed against professional goods smugglers” and vowed to bring in further measures to target such traders based in the city.

Admitting that the move will not put an end completely to parallel trading, he added the government will continue to crack down on any illegal activities. He said: “Anything that increases tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland society is not tolerated.”

Mr Leung said 4.6 million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong more than once a week last year, with Shenzhen residents with multiple visit passes accounting for 30 per cent. That’s a tenth of the 47.3 million mainlanders who visited in 2014, up 16 per cent from the year before. They are estimated to be responsible for a third of retail sales in Hong Kong, a city of 7.1 million that has been a specially administered Chinese region since 1997.

The Chinese authorities introduced the multiple entry system six years ago to encourage a free flow of business, people and possibly more integration.

Simon Shen, an analyst at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said “the original context was very different”.

“At that time Hong Kong was facing economic crisis and all kinds of setbacks. So at that time they did not calculate so much about to what extent Hong Kong could support these external tourists,” Mr Shen said.

Hong Kong opened up to Chinese tourists in 2003 as part of a bid to revive its economy following an outbreak of the respiratory disease Sars, allowing mainland Chinese to visit as individual travellers rather than being part of an organised tour.

Last year alone an estimated 47 million tourists from China streamed to Hong Kong, dwarfing the city’s population of seven million.

Mr Leung said that about 4.6 million of the visitors made trips to Hong Kong more than once a week.

Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung welcomed the move, saying he had raised the issue with Beijing in June, while the travel industry had spoken out against any curbs on visitors.

Hong Kong’s retail sales fell 
2 per cent in the first two months of the year, stoking concern of a retail slowdown due to a drop in tourists.

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