Two weeks after the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge opened to traffic, chaos lingers.
The mega bridge commenced operations on October 24 after two years of delays and budget overruns in the billions of dollars, with Hong Kong forking out HK$120 billion (US$15.3 billion).
Supporters have expected the massive piece of infrastructure to further integrate the three cities and eight others in Guangdong province into an IT-led economic engine meant to rival Silicon Valley in the United States.
But earlier this week, allegations of mainland tour agents operating illegally in Hong Kong emerged, with some believing they had contributed to travel chaos in Tung Chung, the residential area located nearest the 55km link’s checkpoint in the city.
Some localist groups warned the next day they would take action to “reclaim” the district if the problem was not resolved.
How do Tung Chung residents feel about the influx of mainland tourists?
A record number of more than 100,000 people crossed Hong Kong’s port area of the bridge on Sunday, with many of them pouring into Tung Chung by public transport.
The influx placed a heavy burden on buses such as the B6 line, and resulted in complaints of crowded stores, noise and litter in the area.
Who has benefited from the new bridge?
Ngong Ping 360, the city’s signature cable cars on Lantau Island, recorded a 15 per cent increase in the number of guests between October 24 and November 4 compared with the same period last year. The number of mainland visitors doubled.
Restaurants near to where tourists board the Tung Chung bus for the bridge have also benefited.
Tung Chung resident Jessie Yuen hoped the influx of tourists would drive up property prices there.
“The good side of the influx is that more shops could be opened here, and that property prices may go up,” the 55-year-old said.
One group that has not benefited as much as expected is shuttle bus operators.
Alan Chan Chung-yee, vice-chairman of the China Hong Kong and Macau Boundary Crossing Bus Association, said coach companies such as his had seen additional sources of passengers after the bridge opened. However, he said the industry could not earn much by helping to run shuttle bus services because many travellers were elderly people who bought discounted tickets.
Chan believed the shuttle bus operator running buses between port facilities on the bridge had in fact incurred greater costs due to a large number of senior passengers and having to hire more staff to maintain order in the passenger queues. However, the number of passengers would grow in the long term, he added.
What’s the fuss about illegal tour operators?
Under the Travel Agents Ordinance, no person shall conduct business as a travel agent without a licence in Hong Kong, regardless of whether the services are directed at visitors travelling in tour groups or individually.
Under normal circumstances, mainland travel agents contact their Hong Kong counterparts in advance so that local agents could take over services to visitors once they pass the port area.
But Hong Kong Tourism Association executive director Timothy Chui Ting-pong on Tuesday estimated that 20,000 people had been brought to the city by mainland tour groups without registering in the city, and half of the travellers visited Tung Chung.
This raised questions among tourism sector insiders as to whether mainland agents not partnered with a local agent were conducting travel businesses in Hong Kong.
Earlier, tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing suggested some tour guides were operating as illegal workers in the city.
Hong Kong police are looking into the cases while Guangdong provincial authorities have expressed “immense concerns” over the issue.
Why is it difficult to crack down on suspected illegal activities?
Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators Association chairman Ricky Tse Kam-ting suggested law enforcement could be tricky if the tourists claimed they did not pay their tour guide.
“The most difficult thing is: he or she leads a group of people and says they’re friends, and that group of people, say 30 of them, say so. How can you catch such a person?”
“If there’s one person admitting he paid for and joined a tour, then that person would be breaking the law. But you can’t ask all 30 people separately.”
How can traffic pressure in the area be eased?
Officials had reported the issue to Guangdong authorities, prompting them to urge travel agents in the province to strictly comply with the laws and regulations of Hong Kong and Macau.
The government said the Transport Department would carry out works to divert passengers, so that they could travel through different parts of Hong Kong.
The Travel Industry Council also called on local travel agents to arrange for tourists to take shuttle bus route B5 to Sunny Bay to ease traffic congestion in Tung Chung if their travellers needed to board coaches away from the Hong Kong port.
Additional reporting by Phila Siu