One by one the tour buses descended on the blue collar neighborhood in Hong Kong known as To Kwa Wan — literally translated as Potato Bay — unloading throngs of travelers from mainland China outside large restaurants where a quick lunch awaited them inside.
Outfitted in white, red and orange ball caps to denote which tour they belonged to, the visitors crowded the sidewalks, smoked cigarettes under a “No Smoking” sign and bumped into the glass storefront of a real estate office where Nicky Lam, a property agent, was rolling her eyes.
“They’re very loud,” Ms. Lam said, complaining that some of the tourists used her office bathroom and water cooler without asking.
“One tourist came in and asked for restaurant recommendations,” she added. “I stared at him and said, ‘This is a real estate office.’”
The return of budget mainland tour groups in recent months for the first time since China’s borders were closed by the pandemic in early 2020 has revived old tensions in a city transformed by Beijing’s political crackdown.
Before the pandemic, an influx of mainlanders and their wealth into Hong Kong sent prices and rents soaring, fueling frustrations among the city’s residents that sometimes spilled over into outright bigotry. In the nearly three years since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law over Hong Kong to assert its political dominance, criticism of the mainland has often been muted.
Now, the public response to the budget tourists — arriving on packages that cost as little as $175 for a two-day visit — has been less than welcoming, and at times, downright rude.
Local residents also say the tourists — who tend to travel in groups of two dozen or more — are too noisy, are snarling traffic and are blighting public spaces by squatting and dining on boxed lunches outdoors. One group offended local sensibilities by slurping cup noodles outside a public toilet in Repulse Bay, a beach redoubt of multimillion-dollar homes.
Even some members of Hong Kong’s legislature, which is fully stacked with pro-Beijing lawmakers, have lost patience.
“Can we have some good quality tour groups?” Kitson Yang asked his colleagues during a recent legislative session while holding up printed pictures of the tourists deluging parts of the city.
Before the pandemic and the 2019 pro-democracy protests, mainland visitors powered Hong Kong tourism, comprising nearly 80 percent of all arrivals in 2018. After the city imposed some of the strictest pandemic measures in the world, restaurants, hotels and shops in Hong Kong were starved for business. The arrival of the budget tours coincides with the government’s push to revive tourism in the city of 7.5 million residents. Largely because of a lack of flights, though, high-spending tourists have stayed away,.
Budget mainland tourists don’t face that problem because they travel by bus or boat. But local business owners have complained about their spending habits, which typically amount to a few minor purchases in local pharmacies — akin to visiting New York and coming away with a tube of Neosporin from toner.
“Budget tourists are mainly older people. They don’t spend much,” William Chong, the operator of a pharmacy in Kowloon, said recently after emerging from a six-minute burst of activity in his store — the amount of time tour guides allot each group for shopping in any one store.
In the pharmacy, the visitors swept up ointments and instant coffee, but left high-value goods like ginseng untouched.
On online anti-government forums, the tour groups are providing fodder for ridicule, harking back to the days when some local residents would openly use the slur “locusts” to refer to mainlanders who traveled to Hong Kong to buy cheaper powdered baby formula, medicine and cosmetics to resell in China.
The taunting works both ways. Mainland users of Douyin, the domestic Chinese version of TikTok, have been making hidden camera-style videos mocking Hong Kongers’ poor command of Mandarin, in the predominantly Cantonese-speaking city. Others have posted videos of instances they felt slighted by restaurant staff for using Mandarin.
Miu Wang, a tour guide, was recently on the second deck of a white-and-pink car ferry in Victoria Harbor that had been converted into a floating restaurant. She watched over dozens of mainlanders tucking into a modest spread that included egg drop soup, stir fried lettuce and a braised chicken and potato dish that was mostly potato.
A 20-year veteran of the business, she said Hong Kongers were snobs.
“I need to take care of dozens of visitors at once, “Ms. Wang said about complaints that the tourists exhibit boorish behavior. “I can’t control each of them.”
The city’s tourism minister, Kevin Yeung, has urged residents to be more accommodating, even while calling for stricter oversight of visitors.
“Tourists will make the street crowded, but it is a signal of economic growth,” Mr. Yeung said in a recent television interview. “Hong Kong people have been known to be welcoming. It is the time to show this spirit again.”
To deal with the increased crowds, traffic police now direct buses in neighborhoods like To Kwa Wan. Crowd control barriers on sidewalks funnel tourists toward restaurants.
“I wanted to travel here the last three years but I couldn’t because of the pandemic,” said Zhang Zhanbin, 43, from Hebei Province in China’s north, who was visiting Hong Kong for the first time on a four-day tour that cost about $400.
Mr. Zhang, a mustachioed rubber factory worker, said he could care less about the complaints because Hong Kong was back in Chinese hands, and not a British colony.
“I’m not too worried about Hong Kong people discriminating against us.” he said. “After all, Hong Kong has been returned.”
Hong Kong was supposed to maintain a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after its return to Chinese rule in 1997. The protests that engulfed the city in 2019 were aimed at preserving those freedoms, and ultimately failed. Signs of the city’s authoritarian turn now dot the urban landscape, from the billboards promoting National Security Education Day to the banners extolling the words of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Those changes have made Hong Kong more attractive to mainland visitors like Guo Xiuli, a 56-year-old retired state worker from the southern city of Chaozhou, who spent a recent morning taking photographs in Golden Bauhinia Square, a popular tourist site near the heart of the financial district.
Ms. Guo, who was not a member of a budget tour group, said she had been treated with more respect compared with her first visit to Hong Kong in 2004, when she felt that speaking Mandarin made her a target of bigotry.
“I used to feel rejection, indifference and impatience, especially when I spoke to waitresses or asked for directions on the streets,” said Ms. Guo, who dressed up for her photos in red velour heels and a face mask fashioned from lace and rhinestones.
“I think it is because the mainland’s economy has developed,” she continued. “Hong Kong is not so special by comparison.”
Zixu Wang contributed reporting.