HONG KONG - China appears to have suspended visas for tour groups heading to Hong Kong as huge pro-democracy protests grip the semi-autonomous city, a travel industry leader said late Wednesday.
Travel agents on the mainland report that group visas for Hong Kong-bound Chinese tourists were suspended on Wednesday, according to Joseph Tung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, a trade body.
"I'm hearing this from a lot of travel agents in China," Tung told AFP, stressing that the development had not been confirmed by Beijing.
"From today on they do not issue any group permits for groups coming." He added that tourist visas for Chinese individuals travelling independently to Hong Kong did not appear to have been suspended, but warned that a ban on group travel would seriously damage the city's tourism industry.
"A big portion of the travel (to Hong Kong) is from tour groups from mainland China," Tung said.
"If they cannot come, you can well imagine the impact. We depend a lot on tours - this would definitely hurt the tourist industry." Mainland Chinese make up the vast majority of visitors to Hong Kong, many of them attracted by the city's high-end shopping malls.
Hong Kong's tourist board expects 59 million visitors this year, 45 million of these from the mainland, according to figures released in February.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators have poured onto Hong Kong's streets since Sunday, demanding that Beijing allow free elections for the former British colony.
The protests represent one of the biggest challenges to China's rule of Hong Kong since the handover from Britain in 1997, at a time when Beijing is cracking down on dissent on the mainland.
Communist authorities have scrubbed mentions of the protests from Chinese social media, while rights groups report that more than a dozen activists have been detained on the mainland for expressing support for the demonstrators.