Number of tour groups from China's mainland visiting Hong Kong drops by 80% amid protests

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The number of mainland Chinese tour groups visiting Hong Kong plunged about 80 per cent in early March as rising anti-mainland sentiment and a series of protests deterred many from crossing the border, underscoring a deepening divide between both sides.

Tensions have escalated in recent weeks, with local activists accusing mainland visitors of crowding public transport and buying up everything from infant milk formula to diapers.

Protesters have confronted visitors in shopping malls close to the border, complaining that they are pushing up prices, blocking roads and generally being a nuisance. "We used to handle roughly 400 to 500 tours a day, but now it's only over 100 per day. It happened between the end of February and the beginning of March," said Mr Paul Leung, chairman of The Hong Kong Inbound Travel Association.

More than 40 million mainland Chinese visited the city last year, far outstripping the local population of 7.2 million. They stream across the border daily to shop, eat and sight-see, although many have been harassed in recent weeks.

The Hong Kong protesters have waved colonial-era flags and yelled at the tourists to go home, triggering clashes that have forced the police to use pepper spray and some shops to close.

Mainland visitors have expressed shock, saying Hong Kong people are rude and pledged to take their money elsewhere.

Some big spending Chinese tourists are also avoiding Hong Kong following pro-democracy protests late last year that paralysed parts of the city and saw more than 100,000 people take to the streets at the peak.

The financial hub reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, under a "one country, two systems" formula that gives it substantial autonomy and freedoms, with universal suffrage promised as an "ultimate goal".

The protesters were demanding free elections for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017, not the vote between pre-screened candidates that China's Communist Party has said it will allow.

Hong Kong's embattled leader Leung Chun Ying promised to raise concerns about Chinese tourists with central government authorities while he is in Beijing this month.

Mr Leung, the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong's powerful tycoons have warned against a repeat of the protests seen last year, saying they could hurt the city's economic stability.

Hong Kong retail sales in January slid 14.6 per cent from a year earlier in their worst showing since the Asian financial hub was routed by the severe acute respiratory syndrome scare in 2003.

"We hope that the government can come up with a basket of solutions that can balance the demand from both sides," said Mr Leung from the travel association.