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Is China coming to a city near you?

Hong Kong is being transformed by the influx of mainland tourists, some say Chinese tourism magnets such as Paris, Seoul, and Taipei should prepare to deal with something similar.

By Correspondent / November 28, 2012

Hong Kong

For 15 years Hong Kong has fought to maintain its local identity, language, and culture despite formal unification with mainland China. But as more and more wealthy mainland tourists flood the territory looking to shop, the Hong Kongers’s way of life is being challenged.

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Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.15 million, logged 28.1 million tourists from the mainland last year, up from just shy of 7 million in 2002. Chinese tourism magnets such as Paris, Seoul, and Taipei are watching. 

Chinese visitors are pumping money into Hong Kong’s vast, thirsty retail sector, which is a good thing for the economy, but not good for every local. As international companies catering to tourists have expanded, they’ve driven up rent, pushing out small shops catering to locals. Prices of daily goods and real estate are also rising, frustrating locals and highlighting significant changes underway in Hong Kong as it modernizes.

“There’s a little bit of emotional adjustment,” says Joseph Cheng, political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, noting that the territory once considered itself, in no uncertain terms, better off than the mainland. “Now it’s the other way around. They buy our real estate and go to the luxury shops. But on the whole, simply put, this integration is inevitable.”

Hong Kong became part of China in 1997 after more than 150 years of British colonial rule. British officials and the native Chinese, who trace their ancestry to southern China, built Hong Kong into an English-speaking financial hub. As part of the handover back to China, it agreed to preserve Hong Kong’s economy and ways of life until 2047.

Before 2003, Hong Kong only allowed group tours from the mainland, as a way to avoid too rapid of an influx of tourists. But when the SARS epidemic that year slowed tourism to a crawl, the government allowed individual tourists. Today, mainland Chinese make up two-thirds of visitors.

Now, Hong Kong is getting increasingly peeved at the downside to all of these tourists but finding it hard to complain as the mainlanders bring in so much money. Hong Kong is already upset about Beijing’s call for more nationalist education, per the protests there in September. There are also conflicts between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese over manners.

Among common flashpoints: Tourists crowd the metro lines, not always lining up as is custom in Hong Kong, but not China, or speaking quietly as expected in public among locals. Hong Kong dwellers say they increasingly feel pressure to learn Mandarin to survive in business. The small, sole-proprietor shops selling sundries, food, and jewelry with the sounds of the island’s native Chinese dialect Cantonese are increasingly being replaced by crowded name brand international sellers peddling in Mandarin.

“Most of the smaller enterprises need to learn more about Chinese mainlanders’ habits, buying habits, and their culture also,” says David Ting, president of the 1,500-member Hong Kong General Chamber of Small and Medium Business. “There are some retailers who know but most don’t understand.”

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