“I don’t understand the difference and significance of granting individual visas in cities that were previously restricted to group visas,” one post on Xiaohongshu said. “Unless the multi-entry visa is granted, it seems like an unnecessary step.

“Essentially, nationwide group visa holders can travel independently to Hong Kong and Macau, with only a difference in the visa name.”

Tourists from mainland China pose for pictures at Tsim Sha Tsui’s Victoria Harbour waterfront. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

But another post said: “[This policy] is intended to legitimise [independent travel].”

The scheme will be extended on Wednesday, but travel agents in the two cities told the Post there had not been a major surge in queries for travel to Hong Kong after the new arrangements were announced last month and no promotions were planned as it was not the summer or winter peak seasons.

The National Immigration Administration of China on February 23 announced that tourists from Xian and Qingdao could apply for individual visits to Hong Kong with various visa options – a three-month single-entry or double-entry visa, or a one-year single-entry or double-entry visa.

The maximum stay allowed in Hong Kong is seven days per visit.

These conditions are the same as those for the group visa listed on the immigration agency’s website.

While there was no elaboration on the website as to whether travellers could use this permit to go to Hong Kong independently, some mainland media reports in 2017 and 2018 said all mainlanders could visit Hong Kong with a valid group visa without requiring to be part of a tour group.

The Individual Visit Scheme, implemented in 2003, already covers 49 mainland cities, including 21 in Guangdong province and first-tier ones such as Beijing and Shanghai.

The inclusion of Xian and Qingdao was the first time the list of eligible cities has been updated since 2007.

The scheme allows people living in the selected cities to visit Hong Kong on their own rather than as part of tour groups.

Xian resident Amanda Zuo just wrapped up a solo tour to Hong Kong two weeks ago, using an “L”-type group visa permit.

“It took me less than two minutes to get the group visa at a self-service machine and I smoothly passed the Shenzhen-Hong Kong customs alone,” the 23-year-old said.

Wu Lin, from the China Travel Agency in Xian, said there had not been a significant increase in the number of inquiries for visits to Hong Kong after the announcement of the expansion.

“It doesn’t make a significant difference and the level of inquiries for Hong Kong and Macau visits has remained relatively unchanged,” he added.

‘Beijing to make it easier for mainland China solo travellers to visit Hong Kong’

A staff member at the China Travel Agency in Qingdao, who identified herself only as Li, said she did not expect the inclusion of the city in the solo traveller scheme to boost visits to Hong Kong.

The decisive factor for tourists’ choice of destination was resources on offer such as attractions and local culture, and Hong Kong was not rich in this area, she argued.

Li said one of the most popular tourist attractions in Hong Kong was Disneyland, but many mainland tourists would opt for the one in Shanghai instead.

She added that, until recently, there were just a few direct flights from Qingdao to Hong Kong and that ticket promotions by airlines were a major selling point for tourists.

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways is to boost the flight capacity to and from the two cities from the end of the month.

The service to Xian will increase from three return flights a week to five, which will add about 800 seats a week to the route.

Bigger aircraft will be used for the once-a-day return flight to Qingdao, which will increase seats by about 360 a week.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board said 175,000 visitors arrived from Xian and 93,000 from Qingdao in 2018, before the pandemic struck. The corresponding figures for last year were 112,000 and 84,000, despite the reopening of the border.

Hong Kong leader welcomes move to expand solo traveller scheme to Xian, Qingdao

Asked about the difference between the new solo and existing group permit, a board spokesman said there were advantages to the former. He said the Individual Visit Scheme was “clearer, more flexible and convenient” compared with present arrangements.

“It is believed that the two cities, having a population of more 10 million each, will bring more high value-added overnight tourists to Hong Kong,” the spokesman added.

“We expect closer connections between the residents in Hong Kong and those in Xian and Qingdao. The cultural integration and people to people bonds between the two places is expected to be further strengthened.”

The board added it had put up posts on mainland social media to publicise the expansion of the scheme to the two cities and would step up promotions in both.

The Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said it had nothing to add to its earlier statement, which noted that the expansion would allow people from both cities to “explore and feel the unique metropolitan glamour of Hong Kong in a more flexible and convenient manner”.

Ricky Tse Kam-ting, founding president of the Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators Association, welcomed the expansion and insisted it was “a gift to Hong Kong”.

Tse predicted it would increase the number of overnight tourists and stimulate recovery in several sectors, including the food and drinks industry, hotels, and the aviation sector.

The board has forecast 46 million people will visit Hong Kong in 2024, 35 per cent more than last year, but still only 70 per cent of the 65 million who flocked to the city in 2018.