Complaints against package tours up 20pc
Consumers more aware of rights when holidays go wrong
The number of complaints related to package tours in the first seven months of 2007 jumped more than 20 per cent, to 484, compared with a year ago, Travel Industry Council data shows.
The complaints were mainly about tour cancellations, overcharging, changes in the itinerary and forced shopping. There were fewer complaints about refunding payments and tour guide service.
'The number of complaints is rising with the increase in package tours,' said Joseph Tung Yao-chung, the council's executive director. 'People are also more aware of and understand their rights as consumers, so it's natural for them to complain more.'
As these tours involve air-plus-hotel packages, which account for about 80 per cent of tour travel to such popular destinations as Tokyo and Bangkok, complaints about cancellations and changes have also been increasing.
Despite increasing efforts by the council to protect travellers, little seems to have changed over the years. Complaints against travel agents for failing to deliver what they promised, last-minute cancellations of tours and sudden price changes are as relevant today as they were a decade ago.
'We understand that advertising tends to exaggerate, but we want the wording to reflect the actual fact to avoid any misunderstanding,' Mr Tung said. 'This is not fair to the consumer or the travel industry.'
In one case, some tourists who joined two tours organised by a travel agency to Brazil in February complained they did not get what they paid for.
The tourists said the itinerary claimed they would get to experience the atmosphere of the Brazilian Carnival, on their trip, but the carnival was over by the time when they arrived in Rio de Janeiro. The agency replied that tourists would 'feel the carnival atmosphere' through a samba parade that was held after their arrival.
Tourists then filed complaints with the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong. The Consumer Relations Committee took the case, and the dispute was settled in a few months with a refund of a one-day tour fee, approximately HK$3,000, given by the travel agency to some of the unhappy tourists. Others who took the tour have not yet claimed their settlements.
Michael Wu Siu-ieng, an executive committee member of the Association of Travel Agents, said many customers do not realise that airlines always book more passengers than they can carry. This sometimes necessitates switching flights or cancelling the tour.
Likewise, hotel rooms are not guaranteed until the travel agent supplies the names of the guests.
'Travel agents are a lot smarter now. They specify several choices of hotels in case one or two of them are full,' Mr Wu said. 'People assume that, once they ask for a certain hotel, their selection is guaranteed. But this is just a request until the sales voucher is actually issued.'
Mr Tung said specifying the option of 'similar class' hotels saves travel agents a lot of trouble and arguments as it can be difficult to guarantee certain accommodation.
'If travel agents advertise that they can guarantee something and it ends up that they can't, we will demand that they compensate the customer. We do not allow this,' he said.
Some customers will complain even if the hotel is changed to a more luxurious one as they may have preferred to stay at a particular location, Mr Tung said.
The council requires its members to confirm tour fares 28 days before the tour starts. Reasonable price changes before full payment are allowed to account for higher costs from exchange rate fluctuations of more than 3 per cent or unforeseeable circumstances. Customers have the option of receiving full refunds within seven working days.