HK tour operators show little concern for ethics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 12:00am

Tour operators have been accused of being 'out of step' with international trends by showing complete disregard for responsible tourism.

None of the 121 operators surveyed by the University of Hong Kong was able to provide a written policy on its responsibilities towards protecting the environment or communities in countries where they operate.

'I am quite shocked to find nobody had a policy and only about six or seven operators said they were thinking of introducing one,' the environmental governance programme's deputy director, Richard Welford, said. 'This is completely out of line with other countries, especially in Europe.'

Professor Welford said that in Britain, more than 50 per cent of tour operators claimed to have some sort of policy on responsible tourism and 25 per cent planned to develop one.

Last November, members of an international network of tour operators agreed to report on 56 key areas, including employment practices and wages, protection of cultural heritage, sustainable development of destinations and environmental practices such as recycling and sewage treatment.

But the Travel Industry Council has no plans to introduce such a policy for tour operators in Hong Kong. The council's chief executive, Joseph Tung Yao-chung, said this was the responsibility of the host country.

'A tour operator, when organising a tour, will have a receiving agent in the destination country. If the agent passes on any guidelines or information on what tourists should or should not do, then the operator will definitely pass this information on to the customer,' he said.

When questioned about the lack of a policy on responsible tourism, the businesses surveyed in the study replied that they 'cannot see why a policy would be needed', or 'we do not have any significant impact on the environment' and 'our customers have not asked for it'.

But Professor Welford believes local tourist operators should take responsibility for the impact their operations may have.

'They have an ethical obligation to ensure that tourists don't spoil tourism. Operators should make sure that destinations are being protected,' he said, adding that the industry should learn lessons provided by destinations such as Benidorm, in southern Spain, where the environment had become so degraded by rampant developments that tourists no longer wanted to go there.

Professor Welford argues that the increase in tourism in developing countries - estimated to account for more than 10 per cent of holidays involving travel abroad - should not be at the expense of local communities, workers or the environment. He said Hong Kong businesses may in fact be missing out on a major business opportunity.

A survey last year on behalf of the Association of British Travel agents found 52 per cent of Britons would be more likely to book with a tour operator that had a written code of conduct guaranteeing good working conditions, protection of the environment and support of local communities.

'We are now carrying out a survey in Hong Kong, asking tourists whether the reputation of a company matters to them when they make a booking. We don't have final numbers yet, but so far many have said that it does,' Professor Welford said.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates the water needed to sustain 100 tourists for 55 days could be used to grow rice to feed 100 villagers for 15 years. Benidorm now has to import water from Madrid just to keep its 30,000 swimming pools filled.