BEIJING (REUTERS) - A senior Chinese government official on Saturday rebuffed growing complaints from Hong Kong that a flood of visitors from mainland China was overwhelming the tiny territory, saying it was natural for people to want to visit a part of their country.
Last year, more than 30 million mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong, almost four times the city's population, stoking concern about the ability of the city's infrastructure to cope.
Hong Kong residents blame Chinese visitors for pushing up prices and congestion, and the issue has fed unhappiness with the city's leader, Beijing-backed Leung Chun Ying. Tens of thousands protested against him on New Year's Day.
But Mr Lu Xinhua, spokesman for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a body that advises the government but does not have any legislative powers, said it was natural mainland Chinese would want to visit.
"After the 2008 financial crisis, Hong Kong experienced some difficulties, and hoped that mainland compatriots would continue to go to Hong Kong to increase tourist revenue," Mr Lu said, ahead of Sunday's start of the advisory body's annual session.
"Due to inadequate facilities or infrastructure, Hong Kong could not cope with that many mainland tourists, which created a series of problems, and many mainland tourists complained too,"he told a news conference.
"What I want to stress here is that Hong Kong is China's territory. It was a British colony for more than 160 years, but now has returned to the motherland," he added.
Mr Lu is a former deputy foreign minister and was the mainland's senior Foreign Ministry official in Hong Kong from 2006 until last year.
Despite the public pressure on Mr Leung, Beijing has so far publicly endorsed his administration. He has also tried to address the anger by, for example, seeking to limit mainland Chinese from buying property in Hong Kong.
"I know Leung Chun Ying very well. I know that he is a responsible and able leader. I do believe that under his leadership Hong Kong will be better and better," Mr Lu said.
Hong Kong was guaranteed a degree of autonomy when it returned to China under a deal that ended British rule in 1997.
While Hong Kong is generally considered an open and liberal business haven, its leaders since 1997 have sometimes struggled politically in the face of mass popular demands for democracy and more accountable governance.
A half million strong anti-government rally in 2003 later forced former leader Tung Chee Hwa from office mid-term.
In a stormy half year since taking office, Mr Leung has also had to contend with a raft of policy challenges, including an unpopular pro-Beijing education curriculum that was later shelved and high housing prices.