BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) - China will limit the number of visits that residents of the southern city of Shenzhen can make to neighboring Hong Kong, state media said on Monday, to ease the flow of mainland visitors in the former British colony that have stirred up tensions.
The Ministry of Public Security’s Exit-Entry Administration Bureau will restrict residents to one Hong Kong visit a week with immediate effect, compared with an unlimited number of daily trips previously, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said.
The decision highlights growing awareness among Chinese leaders of the groundswell of discontent in Hong Kong, where many residents have been frustrated with the rising number of mainland Chinese visiting the crowded city.
Hong Kong’s leader Leung Chun-ying said on Monday that it “wasn’t an easy decision” for Beijing to limit travel into Hong Kong, bucking China’s trend toward easing immigration measures for its citizens in their travels.
Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that ensured its autonomy, had proposed visa limits to Beijing last June. Shenzhen is just a short train ride from Hong Kong, although mainland visitors require permission from the Chinese government to enter.
While the tide has boosted spending in luxury shops, restaurants and hotels, mainland visitors have been blamed for pushing up shop rents and property prices, and stripping shops of daily necessities such as baby formula and cosmetics.
Hong Kong’s leader Leung said the curbs would combat smugglers who lug goods on trolleys across the border multiple times a day, which they then sell for a profit on the mainland.
In the Hong Kong town of Sheung Shui near the Chinese border, popular with mainland shoppers and targeted by local protesters, the streets and sidewalks were less crowded than usual on Monday and some stores reported a drop in business.
Across the border in Shenzhen, traders busily unloaded goods - some carted off in trucks and vans - although several said that activity had lightened up a bit.
Of 4.59 million visits by people who traveled to Hong Kong more than once a week last year, Leung said, 30 percent were by Shenzhen permanent residents with multiple entry permits.
About 47 million mainland Chinese visitors streamed into Hong Kong last year, more than six times its population.
“As the number of mainland residents traveling to Hong Kong continues to increase, the pressure on the immigration points in the mainland and Hong Kong has risen,” Xinhua said.
Hong Kong’s difficulties in sustaining growing numbers of Chinese tourists was “increasingly apparent”, it said.
Travel industry executives said mainland tourist numbers had already been declining due to political tension in Hong Kong, including democracy demonstrations and protests against mainland shoppers that had at times resulted in harassment of visitors.
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; James Pomfret and Clare Jim in Hong Kong; Editing by Edmund Klamann