When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule eight years ago, many feared the glitzy former British colony would be flooded with bedraggled masses...

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HONG KONG — When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule eight years ago, many feared the glitzy former British colony would be flooded with bedraggled masses of mainlanders. But these days, a new type of mainlander invades the city: the big-spending, nouveau-riche tourist.

Stores and tourism officials are thrilled with the new visitors, who have played a key role in reviving Hong Kong’s once-slumping economy, especially during China’s Golden Week, an October holiday that encourages Chinese to crack open their bank accounts for a spasm of traveling and splurging.

The number of mainland visitors hit 7 million — the same size as Hong Kong’s population — during the first half of this year, and 500,000 were expected during Golden Week, Oct. 1-7, officials said.

“We come here because all the latest designs are here. It’s great to have so many big labels in one place, too,” gushed Liu You, a visitor from Shanghai.

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She splurged $721 on a monogrammed Gucci handbag and lost no time in heading to Louis Vuitton for more purchases.

Once looked down on as hopelessly crude peasants, nouveau-riche mainlanders with a love for excess are now credited as a blessing to Hong Kong’s economy. It was once hard for them to visit Hong Kong because of tight travel restrictions. Although Hong Kong is part of China, the capitalist city has been promised a wide degree of autonomy, and mainlanders need permission to cross the border.

But two years ago, the restrictions were relaxed, largely due to prodding from Hong Kong, which was struggling to recover from the economic ruin caused by an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Throngs of visitors from wealthier provinces — especially neighboring Guangdong, with a population the size of Germany’s — have crossed the border to roam upscale malls in Hong Kong for the latest tax-free luxury goods.

“People who have the money all come here to buy branded products and jewelry. They know their handbags and gold aren’t fake if they shop here,” said Bankee Kwan, the chairman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association.

Compared to the mainland, where everything from soy sauce to duvets could be counterfeit, goods sold in Hong Kong are not only 20 to 30 percent cheaper because of tax advantages but are also perceived as exemplars of quality control.

Though proud that the country is rising on the international stage, Hong Kong people tend to be wary or resentful of the newfound swagger of Chinese luxury shoppers. They also realize that these wealthy visitors only represent a tiny percentage of China’s population.

There’s no denying that the spending habits of some shoppers from the mainland are catching up to Hong Kong levels, though.

“Hong Kong and mainland shoppers spend about the same [about $450], on average, but let’s not forget the average income of Hong Kong people is much higher than that in the mainland,” said Paul Law, the financial controller at jewelry chain Luk Fook.

More than half of the chain’s customers hail from the mainland, he said.

Soon, however, as overseas travel becomes easier for mainlanders, Hong Kong may not be enough for the new Chinese shoppers. The novelty of shopping in Hong Kong seems to have worn out for some of the richest Chinese visitors, and tourism officials said the average spending per trip has dropped from $670 in 2003 to $554 now as the trend to shop in Hong Kong has spread to middle-income visitors.

“Some of our Chinese visitors are bound to be diluted to Europe and long-haul destinations sooner or later,” said Kwan, of the retail association. “We can’t rely on them for a sustainable retail economy.”