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Number of Chinese Mainland Tourists in Hong Kong - 1996 vs 2013

On February 8 around 800 protestors besieged two shopping malls and a bus stop in the district of Tuen Mun, in Northwest Hong Kong. Tuen Mun, which borders on mainland China's Guangdong Province, has become a common destination for mainland shoppers and the so-called 'parallel-traders', i.e. improvised merchants who cross the border to buy products that they then re-sell in mainland China for a profit.

The protestors first surrounded the stop of Citybus B3X, a line connecting Tuen Mun with the mainland city of Shenzhen (it takes merely 30 minutes to cover the distance between the two cities). The demonstrators complained about the flood of mainlanders that, so they argue, have made their district unlivable. "Go back to the mainland", "Give us back Tuen Mun", the Hongkongers shouted. 

Afterwards the crowd moved to Tuen Mun Town Plaza, a popular department store with mainland tourists, and later occupied almost half of Trend Plaza, an adjacent department store. Tensions between Hongkongers and mainlanders rose and scuffles broke out, which led to the intervention of the police. The officers issued warnings and used - for the first time since the end of Occupy Central - pepper spray and batons. Several people were injured, including a policeman, and 13 people were arrested, 8 of whom face charges for illegal assembly. 

One of the leaders of the protests was Ronald Leung, whose name had already hit the headlines in early 2014. Leung had organised the controversial 'anti-locusts' demonstrations. He had provoked public opinion by calling mainland tourists 'locusts' and by demanding that the number of visitors from across the border be limited by the HKSAR government. 

Anger at mainland Chinese tourists has been growing over the past few years, fuelled not only by overcrowding and shopping-related tourism, but also by what is perceived as 'uncivilised' behaviour on the part of many mainlanders. 

I personally never felt that the number of mainland tourists was destroying Hong Kong. Of course, it was changing it. It is undeniable that traditional shops have been driven out of some central areas like Causeway Bay, where new fashionable department stores, luxury boutiques and jewelleries catering to mainland visitors have opened. It is, too, undeniable that the streets of many of Hong Kong's shopping areas have become so crowded that one can barely walk. But I always thought that the mainland presence added something to the international and cosmopolitan flair of Hong Kong, rather than destroyed it. 

And yet, one thing made me change my mind. One day, I simply had a look at the Hong Kong monthly digest.

The Hong Kong Monthly Digest of Statistics (HKMDS) is a monthly publication containing the most important statistical data collected by Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department. The HKMDS was first issued on March 20, 1970, during the British colonial period. At that time, it was published only in English. The first English-Chinese version was published on January 20, 1995, just two years before the handover to the PRC. 

If we look at the statistical data before and after 1997, we can understand why so many people in Hong Kong are fed up with mainland tourists. Let us briefly examine the figures. 

When the HKMDS was first issued in 1970, Hong Kong had an estimated population of 4,034,700. The number of foreign visitors for the year 1969 was 2,378,858, of whom 1,470,104 were listed as "Chinese". 

Let us jump to the HKMDS of June 1997, just a few weeks before the handover to the PRC. The estimated population was 6,421,300. The number of foreign visitors was 11,702,735. Of the total number of visitors, only  2,311,184 were from China. The largest group of visitors came from Japan (2,382,890).

Now we will briefly have a look at the HKMDS of January 2015. The estimated population for this year is 7,234,800, an increase of about a million people compared to 1997. But if we examine the number of visitor arrivals, we see that there has been a boom: in 2013, 54,298,804 visitors arrived in Hong Kong, and the majority of them (40,745,277) came from what is now listed as the "inland of China". 

Suddenly I understood the meaning of what one of my Hong Kong friends had once told me: "I remember that before 1997 there were not so many people in Hong Kong." 

No wonder. From just over 2 million, the number of mainland Chinese has increased to over 40 million. Although the resident population has increased in a relative moderate way, the influx of mainland tourists has changed the face of Hong Kong.

I cannot tell how Hong Kong was before 1997, although I wish I had a time machine and could see it. However, it is evident that an increase of 40 million tourists in a city that is already overcrowded and that is one of the most densely populated in the world must have a huge impact.

Some people may argue that mainland tourists are vital for the Hong Kong economy because they bring cash and create jobs. But Hong Kong was already one of the wealthiest cities in the world before 1997, and it did very well without mainland tourists' money. And I think it is fair to assume that its quality of life was much better, too. 

The question is not whether Hong Kong needs these tourists, but why the mainland cannot offer to its population products of the same quality and price in order to put an end to the ongoing Hong Kong shopping frenzy. 

Angry Hongkongers protest outside a D&G store in Tsim Sha Tsui. A security guard had allegedly prevented Hongkongers from taking pictures, saying that only mainlanders and foreigners were allowed to. The story went viral and caused local citizens' furious reaction.


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