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How badly will the HK protests hurt tourism?

HK protests: What is the impact on tourism?
HK protests: What is the impact on tourism?   

Despite handwringing over how badly pro-democracy protests will hurt Hong Kong's tourism sector, it isn't clear whether the turmoil is keeping mainland tourists away.

"So far, there doesn't seem to be any change in travel plans," Song Seng Wun, a Singapore-based economist at CIMB, told CNBC Wednesday. As long as protests remain peaceful, "there's still reason to get on a plane to buy the roast duck. Chats with hotels haven't really seen any meaningful cancellations."

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Travel agencies around Beijing told CNBC that their tours to Hong Kong are fully booked through the end of the Golden Week holiday, with no cancellations.

Tourism is important for Hong Kong, responsible for around 5 percent of its economy, and mainlanders accounted for around 75 percent of total tourist arrivals in 2013, according to statistics from the territory's Tourism Commission.

Year-to-August arrivals from mainland China were up nearly 16 percent from the year-earlier period, faster than the around 12 percent growth for total arrivals, but total spending by all inbound tourists rose only 8.7 percent over that period, according to official data.

A man walks past shuttered stores as a pro-democracy protest gathers on Nathan Road, a major route through the heart of the Kowloon district of Hong Kong, on September 29, 2014.
Alex Ogle | AFP | Getty Images
A man walks past shuttered stores as a pro-democracy protest gathers on Nathan Road, a major route through the heart of the Kowloon district of Hong Kong, on September 29, 2014.

One reason mainlanders may not be changing their travel plans: they may simply be unaware of the protests due to media blackouts and censorship.

But it could prove difficult to discern whether any decline in mainland arrivals or changes in their spending habits are due to the protests or part of a broader trend.

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"Mainland tourists' arrivals have already slowed since the first quarter of 2014 and a further decline may be in store in the near term," UOB KayHian said in a note Tuesday. "Mainland visitor arrivals could trend even lower than in May, in view of the Occupy Central Movement."

Many analysts -- including UOB KayHian -- are concerned over whether the protests in the key Central shopping district will hurt retail sales during the Golden Week holiday, but they also note another trend may be in play: Chinese tourists have more travel options than just Hong Kong.

For example, cosmetics retailer Sa Sa has said that the significance of Golden Week has been declining as travelers head to other countries, UOB KayHian noted.

ANZ estimates that the protests have cost Hong Kong's retailers around 2.2 billion Hong Kong dollars ($280 million), or around 6 percent of the month's total retail sales. But the impact varies by type of retailer, with sales of luxury goods, cosmetics and durables hard hit, while convenience store and supermarket sales should hold up, said Raymond Yeung, senior economist at ANZ, in a note Friday.

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"The protests have not resulted in a lot of cancelations," Ben Cavender, an analyst at China Market Research Group, said via email. "Over the long term, though, I think we are going to see mainland travelers favoring more and more destinations other than Hong Kong simply because they have more options available to them and are looking for more travel options associated with life experiences like scuba diving, or hiking, or fine dining and this will draw them to countries beyond Hong Kong."

Hong Kong's hotels aren't discounting rooms any more than they were at this time last year, said one major online travel agency, which declined to be named. But it noted that while Hong Kong was the most searched city on its China website last year, this year it's fallen to the No.4 spot as the territory faces rising competition from other locales.

The fight between HK protesters and China censors
The fight between HK protesters and China censors   

Other factors are likely to weigh on tourist spending, even if the mainlanders show up in the territory.

"The key point I see is the China reform [especially related to corruption] and the crackdown on government spending. We're seeing that in slowing retail and slowing tourism in Hong Kong," said Matthew Circosta, an economist at Moody's Analytics.

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Some don't expect the protests will necessarily hurt spending too much among tourist arrivals.

"The good thing about Hong Kong is that they don't have to go to Central for expensive purchases, because they are available beyond just the Central shops," as malls dot the city, CIMB's Song noted.

To be sure, Song also is planning several visits to Singapore's Chinatown over the next few days to check out whether the number of tour busses is higher than normal as the city-state may pick up some of the slack if worried mainland tourists change destinations.

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Mainland media and the South China Morning Post have reported that officials in China have ordered travel agencies to stop selling group tours to Hong Kong after the Golden Week holiday, but the agencies contacted by CNBC were unaware of any such order and there's been no official statement.

The China National Tourism Administration didn't answer the phone or immediately return emailed requests for comment during the holiday period.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs dodged directly answering a question about tourism to Hong Kong, but, its spokesperson said, "Maintaining the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong is not only Hong Kong's interest, but it is also in line with China's interests."

-- Wendy Min in Beijing contributed to this story.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1