Expansions to the scheme have been debated over the years, with past officials citing concerns over sufficient infrastructure and potential disturbances to Hongkongers’ daily lives because of an uptick in visitors. The scheme has not added any new cities since 2007.
“It has been 16 years since we last expanded the scheme, and the population of the cities that are currently covered only accounts for 30.1 per cent of the country’s overall population,” Chan said. “We have not tapped into the individual travel market yet.”
The 26 cities serviced by daily flights and trains would add an extra 10.6 per cent of the country’s population to the scheme, he said.
Separately, lawmaker Edward Lau Kwok-fan agreed the individual travel scheme should be expanded to more major cities such as Harbin, as its further distance meant visitors were likely to spend more days in Hong Kong if they came.
“Visitors from the mainland remain our main source of tourists,” he said at a Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) press conference on Monday.
“Whether they choose to stay overnight or leave the same day, we believe they still have spending power. We should take advantage of that and continue to improve our connectivity with the mainland,” he said
He added now was the “right time” to reintroduce the multiple-entry visa scheme for Shenzhen residents, which was halted in 2015 due to overcrowding and parallel trading issues, with the goal of eventually expanding it to the rest of the Greater Bay Area and Guangdong province.
Hong Kong welcomed 34 million visitors last year, with the figure from the Tourism Board for December reaching 65 per cent of the pre-pandemic level.
Economist Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu said he did not foresee parallel trading problems, which were observed in previous years when the visa was still in place, returning.
“The spending habits of mainland tourists have changed and shopping here is not as attractive,” he said. “If it was still a problem, we would have seen hints of it by now.”
Chinese University economist Terence Chong Tai-leung agreed, saying: “That was nearly 10 years ago. They can easily find duty-free shopping in other places like Hainan Island 1705331712.”
Both welcomed expanding the individual travel scheme to more cities as well, noting the city’s slower-than-expected tourism recovery.
Hong Kong Tourism Board executive director Dane Cheng Ting-yat said recently that it would be unrealistic to expect the number of tourists to reach a record 65 million recorded in 2018, which would “affect tourism experience and push up prices”.
The city’s largest source of tourists in 2023 was still the mainland, which accounted for more than 26.7 million. The fastest recovering markets were in Southeast Asia.
The number of travellers from the Philippines and Thailand in December were at 116 per cent and 106 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, respectively.
Half of all visitors last year chose to stay overnight, which was higher than before the pandemic.
Chan said the city had enough hotel rooms and border checkpoints to handle a larger number of individual visitors from the mainland.
“Sixteen years ago, there were not enough hotel rooms,” he said. “We have 92,000 hotel rooms now and more than 100,000 rooms including guest houses. Last year, there were an average of 17,000 unoccupied hotel rooms per day, which is enough to handle more mainland cities.
“We have also opened many checkpoints in the past 16 years, such as Shenzhen Bay and Liantang-Heung Yuen Wai.”
Tourism sector lawmaker Perry Yiu Pak-leung also said hotels could cope with more visitors staying overnight.
“During the New Year’s countdown, not all hotels were full, except for those that offered a close view to the fireworks, which were almost full,” he said.
“We hope to attract more overnight visitors so that our hotel and service industries can continue to develop in a more stable manner,”
He added that the city should host more events to attract tourists during non-peak seasons and organise more cultural tours to encourage visitors to stay the night.
Yiu said last year’s visitor figure had exceeded his expectations, which showed that the industry was recovering. But the average occupancy rate at hotels stood at about 80 per cent as the industry was still facing a staff shortage, he noted.
At the DAB press conference, lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-ding said city authorities should also look into expanding its tourism pool by looking to untapped international markets such as the Middle East.
Lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun said the government should take better advantage of mega events to attract visitors, such as football superstar Lionel Messi’s visit to Hong Kong next month with Inter Miami CF.
“The streets should be filled with football promotions right now, but I don’t see it,” he said.