Beijing joins crackdown on tour scams

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 April, 2007, 12:00am

Mainland watchdog will send 'snakes' to catch shady operators

The national tourism watchdog will send inspectors disguised as tour group members to the city to expose travel industry scams, in the first mainland-Hong Kong joint action to crack down on irregular practices.

The undercover investigations were among a series of measures announced in Beijing yesterday aimed at addressing concerns that mainland visitors have been duped in shopping scams while on cheap package trips to Hong Kong.

The rip-off claims were highlighted this month when China Central Television ran a report showing mainland visitors in Hong Kong paying high prices for what was claimed to be genuine diamond jewellery and watches. The goods were later revealed to be fakes.

The case featured by the state broadcaster involved a tour group from Shenzhen. Members of the group paid only 420 yuan for the tour, including accommodation.

In order to protect its image as a shopping paradise, Hong Kong has inspected suspicious shops and extended the guaranteed-refund period for tourists from 14 days to six months.

At a meeting yesterday of the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) and the Hong Kong Tourism Board, the Beijing watchdog voiced its support for eradicating the 'cancer' of cheap tours, which lure people with low prices only to sell them overpriced products.

CNTA deputy director Zhang Xiqin said he understood the measures were important to Hong Kong's prosperity and social stability, and that Beijing was willing to help.

'Cheap tours - be they with zero or 'negative' fees - are not a new phenomenon on the mainland. They have existed for a long time. Now it has spread to Hong Kong. If it's not well addressed, it will ruin the whole market,' Mr Zhang said.

The CNTA said the half-year crackdown will start from next month and, through undercover investigations, inspections and visitors' reports, tourism watchdogs' websites would name and shame mainland and Hong Kong travel agencies if their quoted price is lower than the actual trip cost.

The administration said mainland agents would be punished if they were blacklisted in Hong Kong.

According to a CNTA consumer guide, quotes for non-peak season tours should be no lower than 1,495 yuan per person for a four-day Hong Kong trip, including three-star hotel accommodation and tickets to Disneyland and Ocean Park, and excluding air tickets.

Most Beijing travel agencies are quoting around 2,000 yuan, including airfare, for such trips over the May Day holiday.

'Our normal quotation is around 1,000 yuan including air tickets for non-peak days. It's a level adopted by most travel agencies in Beijing. If we raise the price, we will lose customers,' said Anna Huang, a travel agency manager.

The CNTA said it would also release a standard contract to be signed by visitors and mainland travel agencies to better protect consumers' right. The contract will be used in Beijing, Shanghai and several other cities in a trial programme before it is launched nationwide.

The contract requires agencies to provide detailed itineraries, including the hotel's name, location and standard, as well as shop names, and time allocated for shopping. But the CNTA did not say when the contract would come into effect.

In addition, the Beijing watchdog will review qualifications for travel agencies which are allowed to operate outbound services. Last year half of all travel agencies attracting complaints about trips to Hong Kong were unauthorised operators, according to the CNTA.

Tourism Board chairman James Tien Pei-chun welcomed Beijing's plans.

'It's true that the cheap tour problem is the problem of a family. It should be examined well. And it's a good idea to send snakes,' he said, referring to the undercover agents.

Tourism Commissioner Au King-chi said: 'It's easier for mainlanders to be snakes. Hongkongers have an accent which could be recognised by travel agencies.

'I think the CNTA could list guide fees in the consumer pamphlet,' she added.

Hong Kong guides have threatened to strike unless the present system is changed so all guides work for travel agents, instead of on a freelance basis.

Ronnie Ho Pak-ting, chairman of the Travel Industry Council, said the council would meet travel agents on Saturday to ask them to introduce a fee system that would see guides paid several hundred yuan for accompanying a group.

Steps to clean up the travel industry

1 Send inspectors to Hong Kong disguised as tour group members

2 Name and shame mainland and Hong Kong travel agencies if their quotes are lower than the actual trip cost

3 Punish mainland agents blacklisted in Hong Kong

4 Have a standard contract for visitors and mainland travel agencies

5 Review the criteria for travel agencies allowed to operate outbound services