Hong Kong may lose mainland tourists to Japan, South Korea or Europe if the city tightens the Individual Visit Program (IVS), but travel agencies and experts don't expect any changes to have a major short-term impact.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said last week the programme should not be expanded but tightened to check the massive inflow of visitors from the mainland as Hong Kong's capacity to accommodate them is limited.
He said he would raise the issue with central government officials during this week's meetings in Beijing of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Since the programme was launched in July, 2003, IVS has been extended to 49 mainland cities, including all cities in Guangdong province and other provincial capitals.
Sun Libin, director of the marketing department at Tuniu.com - a major travel service website - told China Daily that tightening the IVS would not affect the enthusiasm of mainland tourists in going to Hong Kong, just like Taiwan, which limits the number mainland tourists, but people still like going there.
"However, we cannot ignore the fact that Hong Kong people's attitude toward mainland tourists influences tourists' options. So the future of Hong Kong's tourism industry does not depend on mainland tourists or travel agencies, but on Hong Kong people themselves," he said.
Mainland travel agencies have recorded a decline in the number of visitors to Hong Kong recently. According to the latest statistics from Tuniu.com, the number of mainland tourists in Hong Kong during the Spring Festival holidays fell by about 12 per cent compared with the same period last year, with individual travelers accounting for 60 per cent and group tours taking up 40 per cent.
"The reasons for the decline are diverse. First of all, the price of a Hong Kong tour during the Spring Festival holidays went up by 30 to 40 per cent to 5,000 yuan ($796.6) for each person, which is almost the same for a package tour of Southeast Asian countries. Media reports of Hong Kong people being unfriendly to mainland tourists have also affected their willingness to travel," Sun explained.
"Tightening the IVS might also cause problems in Hong Kong visa applications and affect schedules of tour groups," said Zhou Yingfeng, deputy manager of CYTS Tours in Shanghai, adding that the visa application process might become slow and complex.
According to Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department, the value of total retail sales in December last year, provisionally estimated at HK$47.8 billion, fell by 3.9 per cent from the same month in 2013. It was the worst performance for the Christmas season since the IVS was launched in 2003.
The total value of retail sales in 2014 reached HK$493.3 billion - down 0.2 per cent - and was the first such decline since 2003.
Liu Shanshan, 27, who works for an education consulting company in Beijing, said: "Tightening the IVS would not affect my willingness to visit Hong Kong because I like traveling. But, if the visa application procedure becomes too complex, I might choose other tourist destinations like Taiwan, Japan and France."
She said Hong Kong is not her first choice. "I would like to go to Japan because the environment there is very clean. And it's cost- effective shopping in Japan because of the devaluation of the yen. I also plan to visit France, where many international brands are much cheaper than in Hong Kong."
Japan drew a greater number of mainland tourists during the Spring Festival holidays due to easier visa requirements, the devaluation of the yen which makes Japanese goods cheaper.
"The number of mainland visitors in Japan for the Spring Festival holidays has doubled compared with previous years," said Dai Yu, marketing director of Ctrip, another mainland online travel agency.
Dai said mainland travelers are more interested in independent, in-depth travel. Other less crowded destinations, such as Okinawa, are attracting more mainland visitors.
Zhang Zhen, an office clerk in Shanxi province, which is not included in the IVS, said:"It's a pity that Hong Kong would not increase the number of cities under the programme, so we could only visit Hong Kong on group tours. But I still like to make individual visits."
Zhang said she might consider visiting South Korea as transportation is very convenient and it takes only about two hours to travel from Taiyuan, provincial capital of Shanxi, to Seoul.
Experts are not pessimistic about the future of Hong Kong's tourism industry although some mainland visitors might go elsewhere.
Yang Jinsong, a professor at the China Tourism Academy in Beijing, said he believed that any tightening of the IVS would have only a limited impact on the SAR's tourism industry. "The number of mainland visitors to Hong Kong will not decrease because Hong Kong's role as a shopping paradise cannot be shaken even with the establishment of the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone and an offshore duty-free policy for Hainan," Yang said. He added that although some tourists would go to Japan or South Korea, it would not affect Hong Kong's retail industry in the short term.
According to Ctrip statistics, Hong Kong remains the top tourist destination for mainland travelers.
Yang said: "Hong Kong also has its unique advantages in attracting tourists from the mainland. Tourists can enjoy discounts when shopping in Hong Kong, a duty-free port. Besides, transportation from any mainland city to Hong Kong is very convenient.
"It seems unfair and inappropriate for an open city like Hong Kong to restrict the number of tourists."