The island of Hong Kong is overrun with tourists. What, if anything, should a city do when it becomes too popular?

HONG KONG – It’s the gift that keeps on giving. For over a decade, mainland Chinese tourists have been dropping billions of dollars a year on luxury handbags, watches, and electronics in Hong Kong, undeniably stimulating the city's economy. But they've also made the city more crowded and expensive than ever. Many Hong Kongers are starting to wish the gift wouldn’t give quite so much, and some are demanding the government stem the tide.

Last year, the former British colony, which has a land area slightly smaller than New York City, received 28 million mainland visitors, nearly one-quarter more than a year earlier. Counting other countries, this city of 7 million had a whopping 42 million visitors in 2011, nearly double the population of Australia. Half of those stayed overnight, the World Tourism Organization’s definition of a tourist. The growth in mainland arrivals shows no signs of slowing, jumping 23 percent to 23 million in the first eight months this year compared to the same period a year earlier.

For years, Beijing and Hong Kong have been liberalizing the regime for mainland tourists to go to the city in the early 2000s. They introduced the individual visit scheme in 2003. At the time, Hong Kong’s economy was in the doldrums following the outbreak of SARS. Under the scheme, mainlanders who up until then could visit only on business visas or group tours could do so independently. Today, two-thirds of mainland travelers come on that scheme. The total number of mainland tourists has since quadrupled and their spending has ballooned from $3.6 billion in 2002 to $19 billion last year.

But has the scheme become too successful for its own good? It’s a question that will resonate with other tourist-heavy metropolises like London, Paris, and Venice.

Residents, urban policy experts, activists and lawmakers in Hong Kong say the massive tourism industry is putting an unbearable strain on the city’s transport system, shopping areas and sightseeing destinations, as well as driving up shop rents and prices on goods. Some want to eliminate multiple-entry visas for mainlanders and institute a daily cap on mainland tourist arrivals. Others want the government to study the city’s capacity for more tourists before further relaxing the regime. The current growth rate, they say, is just not sustainable.

"Every year, there are more and more of them," says Roy Tam, president of activist group Green Sense, which has petitioned the government on the issue. "Our public transport is congested and our living space has been affected. It’s not worth it for the small economic benefit they bring. The social cost is too great."

It’s not just the public. Last month, following outcry over a decision by Shenzhen to let 4.1 million non-permanent residents apply for multiple-entry visas to Hong Kong, the territory’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said the scheme would be put on hold pending a study on the city’s ability to accommodate more visitors. Earlier this year, tourism board chairman James Tien said the city's scheme for receiving mainlanders needed to be reassessed.

Residents say the city’s subway, the Mass Transit Railway, and particularly a line running from the Chinese border in the northern New Territories to the city center, has been hard-hit. "The trains are packed even at non-peak hours," says Chan Yung, a north district council member and chairman of the New Territories Association of Societies. "If the tens of thousands of mainland visitors we get per day were spread evenly across the system, it might be fine, but that’s not the case." MTR does not provide the number of passenger on this line specifically. From 2008 to last year, the overall daily passenger numbers on the system rose 13 percent, to 4 million.

Crowding has grown, especially in popular shopping areas like Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui, in and around MTR stations, and tourist destinations like The Peak. "Crowding is a problem," says Yip Ngai-ming, an associate professor specializing in housing and urban policy at City University of Hong Kong’s department of public and social administration. "The tourists’ activities tend to be highly concentrated in a few specific locations, especially the more popular tourist spots. This can frustrate local residents."

The proliferation of stores aimed at the tourists, the kinds that sell high-end watches, jewelry, bags, and clothes, has created a bidding war for the best retail spaces and forced out smaller vendors. "All we have now are foreign luxury labels, watches and jewelry, which are willing to pay higher rents," Yip says. "It’s the same brands, over and over." Though the demand for luxury goods and retail space has eased over the past year, according to a July report by property consultant CBRE, the territory remained the most expensive location for shop rents.

Differences have led to clashes. Hong Kongers have lashed out at mainlanders for eating on the MTR and letting their children relieve themselves in public. "They have their own hygiene practices, and there are cultural differences between us," says accountant Carly Wong, 22.

Tourism undeniably contributes to the local economy. It contributed 4.4 percent to the territory’s gross domestic product in 2010 and employs 218,000 people, or 6.2 percent of the city’s working population last year.

Simon Wong, chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades and of the Kampery food and beverage group, said mainland tourists had benefited various industries. "Some might not feel so warmly about mainland tourists due to their impact on transportation and some areas of the city," he says. "But from an economic perspective, if it’s an orderly expansion [of mainland tourist numbers] and Hong Kong can cope with it, we would support that."

Beyond all this balancing of pros and cons, a larger, even more complicated issue looms in the minds of Hong Kongers: that their home is changing faster than they would like. "The historical places are gone," says Carly Wong. "It feels like we’ve made a sacrifice."

Top image: A mainland Chinese tourist rests outside a cosmetic store in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

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