The number of Chinese tourists traveling overseas during the Chinese New Year hit a new peak this year, for the first time outnumbering those who traveled domestically. Authorities in Hong Kong say the charged political climate last year contributed to a fall in visitors from the mainland.
According to Chinese state media the number of mainland Chinese visitors to Hong Kong dropped for the first time since 2013.
The drop in tourists from the mainland follows several months of pro-democracy protests that blocked Hong Kong’s streets. Protesters were demanding direct elections of the city’s leader.
Raymond Yeung, a senior economist with ANZ, says the decline in tourism could pinch economic growth for a city that has long enjoyed a financial boom from mainland visitors.
“I think the spending of mainland Chinese tourists represents maybe one-third of the total Hong Kong economy, so if they cut the spending that will effect the retail segment,” he said.
China’s state run Global Times newspaper reported that more than 675,000 mainlanders visited Hong Kong during the first five days of the Chinese new year holiday from Wednesday to Sunday. That is down 0.16 percent from last year. On Tuesday, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the number of mainlanders who are permitted to travel as individual tourists to Hong Kong decreased by five percent compared to the same period last year.
Sharp increase to other Asian destinations
The number of mainland Chinese visitors traveling to other Asian destinations sharply increased. The number of visitors to Macao saw a 6.7 percent annual increase, while news portal chinanews.com reported the number of Chinese mainland tourists visiting Japan in January increased by 45 percent to about 226,000 compared to the previous year.
Chinese media have attributed the decline in mainland tourists to the Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations. During last year’s protests China’s state media largely ignored Hong Kong residents’ political grievances, instead reporting that demonstrations mainly were driven by xenophobia and prejudice towards mainland Chinese.
Many protesters at the time mainly aired their grievances against China’s central government in Beijing, which controls Hong Kong policy, saying they had no issue with mainland Chinese.
'Go home locusts!'
But in more recent months, after the government effectively shut down the protests, some groups of demonstrators have started targeting mainland Chinese visitors at Hong Kong shopping malls, chanting “Go home locusts!”
Demonstrators said their protests are fueled in part by parallel traders, or mainland Chinese who travel to Hong Kong to buy items in bulk to then sell at a cheaper rate on the mainland.
Yeung says ultimately the demonstrations could weaken Hong Kong’s reputation as a shopping and travel destination for mainlanders.
“Symbolically this wouldn’t be positive and could be sending a wrong message to the mainland that the people of Hong Kong no longer welcome Chinese tourists, there might be some negative impact and there could be some kind of demotivation for them to come to Hong Kong as a first choice,” he said.
In a response to the complaints about the large numbers of mainland shoppers, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung recently said he will consider restricting the number of Chinese tourists allowed to enter Hong Kong.
China National Tourism Association's website reports that during the Chinese New Year holiday more than five million Chinese traveled overseas to areas other than Hong Kong and Macau.