kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2005, 12:00am

When the Quality Tourism Services Scheme struck the jewellery shop 3D-Gold off its list of approved premises last December, the management knew precisely what to do. They flushed the scheme down their famous $38 million gold toilet, saying they attracted 5,000 visitors a day and did not need QTS. I tend to agree with their opinion.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board's system of approving places where visitors can shop or dine without being ripped off, harassed or conned is murky.

I'm mystified by what QTS does. It doesn't seem to be much. QTS dedicates itself to looking after the interests of tourism-related businesses, particularly shops and restaurants. Part of its stated mission is to improve ethics and standards of service.

There are 5,200 outlets entitled to display the needlessly confusing logo; only one establishment has ever been stripped of this right, and that was 3D-Gold. The well-known Hunghom enterprise, which boasts the most expensive loo in the universe, was disbarred when 40 customers complained they had been harassed by staff and prevented from leaving the shop.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board for once took some positive action, sending a string of decoy shoppers to the shop. What they saw convinced HKTB chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee and other board members that the firm should be taken off the list of recommended outlets.

This is the sort of proactive approach the HKTB and its offshoot Quality Tourism Services should be taking every week of the year. I believe the number of complaints by tourists is only the tip of a very large problem.

Visitors usually complain only if there is a major incident that includes physical violence, abuse or sizeable monetary loss.

Everyone in the tourism industry remembers with a shudder of horror an incident more than two decades ago when a customer in a Nathan Road electronics shop complained he had been misled and overcharged by the outlet. Then a shop assistant rammed his ballpoint pen up the customer's nostril and in this agonising hold led him out into the street, kicked him in the backside and warned him not to come back.

Admittedly, cases of this magnitude are thankfully rare. But it's still common for tourists to become victims of sharp practices.

Rather than sit about waiting for complaints, the HKTB and the QTS should be out making regular inspections, pretending to be visitors and checking how they get treated. Once they get evidence that tourists are being cheated, these underground bargain hunters should turn it over to police.

Let's get it straight. If staff demand customers buy something, bar the doors and refuse to let them leave, this is more than a minor matter requiring a reprimand from tourism services. It is a serious crime; unlawful imprisonment is one charge that springs to mind. It's a matter for police.

The Quality Tourism Services Scheme has never quite got off the ground. It was conceived as a replacement for the old Hong Kong Tourist Association.

When the HKTA was scrapped in 1999 and replaced by the Tourism Board, a corporate home had to be found for the thousands of HKTA members. The answer was the QTS. The striking red junk logo of HKTA members had been familiar for decades. It disappeared, however, to be replaced by the complex QTS symbol, which is recognised by almost nobody.

The chairman of QTS is legislative councillor Vincent Fang Kang. He's a busy man. In addition to heading the tourism body and sitting on Legco, he also runs a major company (the Toppy group) and sits on the Hospital Authority, HKTB and the Federation of Hong Kong Garment Manufacturers. He is also an adviser to the Retail Management Association. Little wonder that he is usually too hard pressed to spare time to explain to the media what the QTS does.

An HKTB spokesman is adamant the QTS stamp of quality is of real value to visitors. The board also insists its professional consultant, which happens to be the Hong Kong Productivity Council, another lacklustre government white elephant, makes stringent audits to see an outlet is up to standard. This includes annual 'secret shopper' visits.

HKTB says the value of QTS to retailers is shown by a 50 per cent jump in membership applications last year. I say this is merely evidence that it is far too easy to join the scheme and that checking of service standards and quality need to be far more stringent to protect visitors from the opportunistic retail sharks that abound in Hong Kong.