— A recent protest by Hong Kong residents targeting shoppers from mainland China is drawing attention to local people's growing frustrations about a wave of mainlanders visiting the city and how authorities are handling the situation.
At the February 16 protest, about 100 Hong Kongers shouted insults at mainland Chinese visitors shopping in an upscale district of the Kowloon peninsula.
It was the first time that Hong Kongers who resent the rising number of mainlanders in the city had displayed their anger by confronting the visitors directly in such a central location.
The protest on Canton Road in the Tsim Sha Tsui district
triggered a strong backlash, with the Hong Kong government accusing the anti-mainlander activists of tarnishing the territory's image.
But the incident also intensified the controversy about how the former British colony of 7 million people has been coping with the surge in mainland visitors.
Mainland visitors: who are they?
The Hong Kong Tourism Board has reported
that the number of visitor arrivals from mainland China last year was 41 million, a 17 percent increase on the year before.
The total number of visitor arrivals was 54 million.
University of Hong Kong social studies professor Paul Yip
said most of the arrivals from mainland China were tourists who flock to Hong Kong's theme parks and hotels.
He said a smaller share of the arrivals, about one-quarter, were mainland shoppers who make brief daytime visits to buy everything from luxury watches to daily essentials such as baby milk formula.
Speaking to VOA by phone from Hong Kong, Yip said many Hong Kongers see the advantages that those mainland visitors bring.
"Hong Kong people know that tourism is one of the city's major sources of income and provides a lot of job opportunities for the retail and the services sectors," he said.
How mainlanders impact Hong Kong
But the more Hong Kong stores cater to the mainlanders, the more the city's shopping landscape has changed.
Yip said the expansion of shops popular with mainland shoppers in prime areas has raised rental costs for other stores liked by residents and foreign visitors from elsewhere, forcing those stores to shut down or relocate.
Mainlanders also have been competing with locals for space on Hong Kong's crowded trains and buses.
Many of the mainlanders who enter Hong Kong do so as part of tour groups. But an increasing number of them also secure individual permits from southern Chinese cities to cross the mainland's internal border with Hong Kong.
South China Morning Post columnist Michael Chugani
, also speaking by phone from Hong Kong, said that the decade-old individual travel scheme is part of the problem.
"There are now 49 cities on the mainland that can send tourists to Hong Kong, and the number of people who qualify to come under that open door policy is about 300 million," Chugani said.
"Now they are all within an hour's train ride or bus ride to Hong Kong. That is roughly the size of the whole of America, population-wise. And just imagine if the whole of America had a 30-minute or a one-hour bus ride into the city of Manhattan. Could Manhattan handle it? Obviously not, right?" said Chugani.
Protesters vent anger, mainlanders react
One of the Hong Kong activists who harassed the mainland shoppers in Kowloon said Hong Kongers cannot cope with such a situation, either.
Speaking at the demonstration, organizer Ronald Leung said, "If the government does not listen to us, we will talk to the tourists directly. We will say to them, 'There are too many of you here. Please stop coming. This is not about hurting feelings. This is about protecting our Hong Kong'."
The protesters also called the mainlanders "locusts."
Reaction from the mainlanders at the scene was mixed.
“Hong Kongers are too unfriendly. I dare not come again in the future,” said one tourist.
Another said, “If we came to Hong Kong and followed the basic local requirements, and were more civilized, then I believe this would not happen.”
The protesters' insults also offended many Hong Kongers, including Chugani.
Assessing the government's visitor strategy
But the columnist said most of the blame for the incident should be placed on what he called the Hong Kong government's "failed policies."
"Essentially we have just become one giant shopping center for hundreds of millions of mainland visitors," he said.
"Now that's a failed policy, because when the government opens up the border, they have got to say, how many are coming? Do we have the transport structure, the shopping malls, the hospitals, and all the other things they will need? The government never thought of these things."
Two days after the anti-mainlander protest, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying
told reporters his administration has been managing the influx by building more infrastructure.
"We fully appreciate the pressures that have been brought on certain districts in Hong Kong as a result of the large number of tourists coming to Hong Kong," Leung said.
"At the same time, we will increase the supply or availability of tourist-related facilities in Hong Kong. One very good example is the construction of large shopping facilities on the man-made island that will be part of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge
. So... we manage demand and increase supply at the same time," said Leung.
The Hong Kong government also has tried to limit the growth of mainland arrivals by persuading Chinese officials not to allow residents of more cities to travel to the territory as individuals.
The number of Chinese cities that grant such permits has remained at 49 since 2009, but Leung has not taken any steps to reduce the number of mainland visitors in the short-term. His administration also said it expects to welcome 70 million visitors a year by 2017, with most of the increase coming from the mainland.
Alternative ways of managing the tide
Hong Kong University's Yip said authorities should consider short-term measures to regulate the flow of mainlanders, like taxing them.
"I think the government can do better," said Yip. "And they need to do better, because the situation is really reaching a breaking point."
Chugani said Hong Kong businesses that benefit from mainland customers oppose any attempts to limit arrival numbers, fearing such moves could damage their profitability.
He said the Hong Kong government sympathizes with that concern and wants to avoid the loss of lower-skilled retail and tourism jobs that keep the city's unemployment rate down.
Leung also has warned that any taxes on mainland visitors could prompt the Chinese government to impose similar taxes on Hong Kongers who travel to the mainland for business and pleasure.
Yip said Hong Kong should try to build trust with mainland China so that both sides can find a solution that makes the city more livable and enjoyable for residents and visitors alike.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Cantonese service. Iris Tong contributed from Hong Kong.