New restriction limits Shenzhen residents to once-a-week visits to Hong Kong

BEIJING/HONG KONG (REUTERS) - China will limit the number of visits that residents of the southern city of Shenzhen can make to neighbouring Hong Kong to ease the flow of mainland visitors in the former British colony that have led to tensions.

The Ministry of Public Security's Exit-Entry Administration Bureau will restrict residents to one Hong Kong visit a week with immediate effect, compared with an unlimited number of daily trips previously, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said on Monday. The article confirms comments by a Hong Kong politician and Hong Kong media reports on Sunday.

The decision highlights growing awareness among Chinese leaders of the groundswell of discontent in Hong Kong, where many residents have been frustrated with the rising number of mainland Chinese visiting the crowded city.

Hong Kong's leader Leung Chun-ying said on Monday that it "wasn't an easy decision" for Beijing to limit travel into Hong Kong, bucking China's trend towards easing immigration measures for its citizens in their travels.

Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a"one country, two systems" formula that ensured its autonomy, had proposed visa limits to Beijing last June. Although Shenzhen is just a short train ride from Hong Kong, mainland visitors require permission from the Chinese government to enter.

While the tide has boosted spending in luxury shops, restaurants and hotels, mainland visitors have been blamed for pushing up shop rents and property prices, and stripping shops of daily necessities such as baby formula and cosmetics.

Hong Kong's leader Leung said the curbs would combat smugglers who lug masses of goods on trolleys across the border multiple times a day, which they then sell for a profit in mainland China. Of 4.59 million visits by people who travelled to Hong Kong more than once a week last year, he said, 30 per cent were by Shenzhen permanent residents with multiple entry permits.

About 47 million mainland Chinese visitors streamed into Hong Kong last year, more than six times its population.

"As the number of mainland residents travelling to Hong Kong continues to increase, the pressure on the immigration points in the mainland and Hong Kong has risen," Xinhua said.

Hong Kong's difficulties in sustaining growing numbers of Chinese tourists was "increasingly apparent", it said. Travel industry executives said mainland tourist numbers had already been declining due to political tension in Hong Kong, including democracy demonstrations and protests against mainland shoppers that had at times resulted in harassment of visitors.

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