A series of official measures to ease the tourist influx at a quiet Hong Kong suburb near the new cross-border sea bridge led to significant improvements on Saturday with smaller crowds, as residents breathed a sigh of relief.
At 12pm, no flag-wielding tour groups were spotted in Lantau Island’s Tung Chung, the closest residential area to the port facility of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. Visitors were mostly individuals seen sitting on benches or walking around mall areas.
This marked a stark contrast to previous weekends in which the town was flooded with thousands of mainland tourists who came in groups on public transport. Most were on day trips, eager to experience the 55km bridge, the world’s longest sea crossing, which opened in late October.
By 8pm on Saturday, 27,622 inbound travellers had used the bridge, about 8 per cent lower than the figure at the same time last week.
According to the Travel Industry Council, about 260 registered tours passed through the bridge this weekend, compared with a peak of 432 two weeks ago, and 354 last week.
Since the link opened for traffic on October 24, Tung Chung residents have been up in arms about their neighbourhood being flooded by visitors, with protests launched last month by local activists.
Since November 2, the Hong Kong government has put in place new measures to staunch the travel chaos arising from the bridge, such as boosting the fleet of port-to-port shuttle buses and relaxing booking arrangements for boarding slots on coaches at the local checkpoint.
Earlier this week, Guangdong’s tourism authority said it had ordered travel agencies to suspend all day trips to Hong Kong and Macau on weekends via the bridge, days after the province’s capital city Guangzhou said it had asked agents to avoid doing so.
Standing outside Mannings – a retail chain popular with mainlanders – on Saturday, Tung Chung resident Tony Chan Tung, 49, said there were fewer travellers.
“Previously at this time, it was difficult to walk past here. But now, it’s OK … at least I can buy things,” the mechanic said.
Another resident David Toong, 50, who has lived in the district for about 10 years, said there were signs of improvements though he saw some tour groups in the morning.
A saleswoman working in Mannings, surnamed Leung, said she felt more comfortable at the shop this weekend compared with last month, when it was so crowded she decided to wear a face mask as she felt the air quality was bad.
“It was like going to the border clearance facility at Lo Wu previously,” she said, referring to a busy port between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
Even the visitors were happier. A 55-year-old farmer from the mainland, who only gave her surname Chen, said it was her second time crossing the bridge to Tung Chung, and she could easily find a place to eat and shop this week.
To divert crowds, local officials also planned to introduce more shops, including temporary ones at the port facility at the bridge.
HKTVmall, an online shopping platform owned by outspoken entrepreneur Ricky Wong Wai-kay, has launched a 4,000 sq ft pop-up shop there, selling products such as milk formula, diapers, skincare items and medicine – all popular with mainlanders.
However, many visitors bypassed the store because their schedules were tight.
Individual traveller Shi Ya-min, 40, from Zhuhai, was one of the few who stopped by the shop. The housewife said she planned only to stay at the port facility for a while, before heading back as she wanted to experience the bridge.
Shi bought a can of milk powder and said the presence of a store at the checkpoint was convenient for customers like her who were seeking “some basic products”.
Local tour guide Liang Xiao-dam who was leading a group on a two-day tour said: “When tourists buy things at the arrival hall, it is tiring for them to carry a lot of goods in and enjoy their itinerary.”
She added that having another shop on the upper floor of the building – for outbound travellers – would be a better idea.
Jelly Zhou Huijing, managing director of Hong Kong Television Network, which runs HKTVmall, said the company did not set any expectation for its first day of business and that it would monitor the situation.
She said the company would consider cooperating with mainland tour agencies and promised to step up promotion among mainlanders.
At around 4pm, a tour group from Foshan was spotted heading back to the mainland from Tung Chung. The guide, who refused to disclose her name, conceded they offered a one-day package, even though they knew about the new restrictions.
She said she was only carrying out orders from her company. “Do you think they will follow that?” she asked, referring to the mainland restrictions. “If so, travel agencies will close down.”