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Tourism from Mainland China Halted as Hong Kong Prepares for Democracy March - 2004-06-29

Hong Kong tour operators are complaining of a mysterious decline in the number of group tours from communist mainland China. The apparent freeze in organized travel coincides with a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong scheduled for Thursday, leading many to suspect Beijing is involved. On average, rain or shine, more than 500 tour groups from China visit Hong Kong every day. But later this week those numbers are expected to plummet to around 50 a day between Wednesday and Friday.

Group operators are not offering explanations and representatives of Hong Kong's Travel Industry Council said they could not comment.

But local papers in Hong Kong suggest communist officials in China have effectively grounded tours to keep mainlanders from witnessing the July first pro-democracy march.

Organizers of the march say they are not surprised Beijing might be trying to keep people from hearing their demands for direct elections and greater democratic reform.

"Of course I think they try many ways to discourage the people to come and join and also they try many ways to make the demonstration not as successful as what we expect," said Rose Wu, the chairwoman of Hong Kong's Civil Human Right's Front and a leader of the pro-democracy movement.

The July 1 march is a pointed response to Beijing's decision in April to postpone direct elections of Hong Kong's leader until after 2007. That is when a Beijing-appointed body will choose the territory's third chief executive since returning to Chinese rule in 1997.

A similar demonstration last year drew at least 500,000 people and was the largest political rally on Chinese soil since the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.

Tourism officials in Hong Kong warn that if Chinese tourists do stay home during the march, the former British colony's tourist industry could lose more than $45 million during the three-day break.