Hong Kong lawmakers and tourism insiders have alerted residents to beware of advertisements on social media offering speedier processing of applications for travel permits to mainland China.
Offices of the China Travel Service (CTS), the Chinese government agency that issues travel documents for the mainland, have been struggling to cope with a deluge of applications since the border reopened fully in February.
Travel industry insiders said about 1.5 million Hongkongers were waiting for their new mainland travel permits.
The warnings about dubious services advertised over Facebook, Carousell and Taobao came as CTS stopped accepting walk-in applicants at its offices in the city and advised people to make an appointment on its website first.
However, appointment slots are available online four months in advance, and are fully booked up to August.
New slots released at midnight each day are snapped up within minutes, sometimes in under 60 seconds.
In social media communities dedicated to travel, people have been sharing tips for those who want a permit to visit the mainland and need to book a CTS appointment online.
Their advice: “Go online and start filling in your information at 11.45.pm. When the clock strikes 12, click ‘Submit’ as fast as you can.”
Word spread within these communities that earlier online bookings for CTS appointments could be bought from scalpers, or that there were agents who could, for a fee, secure earlier reservations.
Some listings seen by the Post claimed applicants could get help to bring forward their CTS appointments.
The Post reached out to one advertiser on the Hangzhou-based e-shopping platform Taobao.com, who promised to hasten the process for those who already had made an appointment.
Taobao.com is an affiliate of Alibaba Group Holding, owner of the South China Morning Post.
For a fee of 1,500 yuan (US$217), the advertiser claimed to be able to “expedite” the booking using “internal indicators”, but refused to reveal details or provide a specific date for the earlier appointment.
“It sounds like a scam,” said tourism sector lawmaker Perry Yiu Pak-leung, who suggested these advertisers could be taking advantage of people who did not understand the system well.
“CTS allows people with emergency reasons such as the death of a loved one, medical treatment, or urgent business to expedite their applications through a ‘Green Channel’ mechanism,” he said.
“People who do not know this might think these sellers are giving them an exclusive service, but they might just be using this method, which everyone has access to.”
Although there have been no reports so far of people being scammed, he said the authorities should act against those making such claims.
CTS has five offices across Hong Kong. Applicants for mainland travel permits have to pay anywhere between HK$260 (US$33) and HK$870 depending on their request.
Fanny Yeung Shuk-fan, executive director of the Travel Industry Council, said it was highly unlikely that those advertising speedier service could actually get new dates for applicants.
“I do not see how that would work, because the CTS asks for all sorts of information, including details of your family members before they let you make a reservation,” she said. “All that is attached to your booking ticket, so there is no way you can exchange it with someone else.”
Some Hongkongers have been trying other ways to beat the crush and get their travel papers sooner.
In a Facebook group called “Shenzhen Bay Area Eat, Drink and Play Sharing”, made up mainly of Hongkongers who like visiting nearby mainland cities, variations of the same question popped up several times a day:
“Has anyone had success getting their mainland travel permit?”
“How come I can’t click on any of the reservation dates?”
“What time do they release the slots each night?”
“Did anyone manage to make an appointment just now?”
One member related in detail her experience taking the advice of others in the group, by going across the border to neighbouring Shenzhen to apply for a new travel permit.
First, she made an appointment with the Shenzhen Municipality Public Security Bureau. It was done over WeChat and she got a slot two days later.
“You must have a mainland phone number to complete the booking,” she said.
On the day of her appointment, she went to the Lo Wu control point and obtained a one-time temporary permit into the mainland, paying a few hundred Hong Kong dollars and taking around three hours.
With that permit valid for three months, she crossed into Shenzhen and took public transport to the Longgang Exit-Entry Service Hall, arriving in time for her appointment.
Staff at the service hall guided her through the process, which included taking her photograph and photocopying her Hong Kong identity card and old mainland travel permit.
She was told her new 10-year permit would be ready in “nine to 14 days”. It cost her 350 yuan.
“The document must be collected on the mainland, but a relative or friend can be authorised to do that for you,” she said. “You can also arrange for it to be mailed, but it can only be sent to a mainland address.”