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 revving up Hong Kong's once-slumping economy.

The number of mainland visitors hit 7 million -- the same size as Hong Kong's total population -- in the first half of this year, the Tourism Board said.

"We come here because all the latest designs are here. It's great to have so many big labels in one place, too," said Shanghai visitor Liu You. She splurged on a flashy Gucci monogrammed handbag, spending $721, and lost no time in heading over to Louis Vuitton to make more purchases.

Once looked down upon as hopelessly crude peasants, newly rich mainlanders with a love for excess are now seen as a boon to Hong Kong's economy. It was once hard for them to visit Hong Kong because of tight traveling 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 the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

Throngs of visitors from the wealthier provinces -- especially neighboring Guangdong, with a population about the size of Germany's -- have crossed the border to roam the upscale malls 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 Hong Kong Retail Management Association Chairman Bankee Kwan.

Although luxury retailers such as Louis Vuitton have spotted the rapidly developing Chinese economy and have scrambled to open stores there, few shoppers opt to buy on their homeland. Last year, the Chinese accounted for 12 percent of global luxury-good sales, but only 2 percent of that was bought on Chinese soil, according to a 2004 Goldman Sachs report.

Compared with 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, due to tax advantages, but are also perceived as exemplars of good quality.

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

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

"Hong Kong and mainland shoppers spend about the same, on average -- roughly HK$3,500 per session," or about $450, said Paul Law, financial controller at jewelry chain Luk Fook. "But let's not forget the average income of Hong Kong people is much higher than that in the mainland," Law said. More than half of the chain's customers hail from the mainland, he said.

And soon, Hong Kong will not be enough for the new Chinese shopper, as overseas traveling becomes easier for mainlanders. The novelty of shopping in Hong Kong seems to have worn off for some of the richest Chinese visitors: The Tourism Board says average spending per trip has gone down to $554 from $670 in 2003 as the trend to shop here 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. We can't rely on them for a sustainable retail economy," retail manager Kwan said.

Mainland Chinese tourists shop for jewelry in Hong Kong. Wealthy people are attracted by Hong Kong's tax advantages and quality goods.