Travel bug bites in Year of the Snake

Chinese mainlander tourists strike a pose on Time Square in Hong Kong during celebrations of the Chinese new year, which this year marks the Year of the Snake. PHOTOGRAPH: LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Chinese mainlander tourists strike a pose on Time Square in Hong Kong during celebrations of the Chinese new year, which this year marks the Year of the Snake. PHOTOGRAPH: LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Tue, Feb 19, 2013, 00:00

The Year of the Snake is now officially upon us, and millions of Chinese people will start wending their way back from their ancestral homes to the cities after the world’s greatest annual human migration.

Not everyone went home for the holidays, however. The expanding middle class has seen a surge in Chinese taking holidays, and while visa restrictions mean it is not all that easy to get overseas, Hong Kong is a popular destination.

In the first three days of the Year of the Snake, more than 380,000 mainlanders entered Hong Kong, a 33 per cent increase from 286,000 in the same period last year, according to Hong Kong Immigration Department figures.

The massive influx of mainland visitors has given a big early-year boost to retail sales in the territory. Retail sales rose 9.8 per cent in 2012, slower than the 24.8 per cent increase a year earlier. Luxury sales contracted by 3.4 per cent in August, the first negative growth in about three years, before rebounding with 11 per cent growth in December.

The strength of the Chinese yuan currency versus the Hong Kong dollar makes the former Crown colony an attractive place to go shopping during the big holidays such as Chinese new year.

Last year, shopping was hit by the slowing Chinese economy, but this year big names such as Prada and Versace, as well as local brands, benefited from the influx of tourists.

The theme park Ocean Park was forced to suspend ticket sales on several occasions last week because it neared its legal maximum of 36,000 visitors.

Some Hong Kong lawmakers want a cap on individual mainland visitors coming to Hong Kong under a 2003 scheme, saying the influx has stretched the city’s facilities to the limit and badly impacted on Hong Kongers’ lives.

The Chinese new year holiday also gave Macau, the Asian Las Vegas, a boost. The former Portuguese colony’s tourism office said visitor arrivals from mainland China jumped 36 per cent to 114,363 on February 12th, and set records for daily visits thereafter. Minimum bet sizes also increased.