Travel agents criticised for ignoring advice

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong travel agents have been condemned for continuing to send tourists to a 'war zone' yesterday despite escalating government advice against going.

At least 300 travellers in 10 groups organised by Hong Thai Travel Services and EGL Tours headed to Bangkok in the morning, and those who opted out were told they would not get a refund. Many chose to fly, even though it was unlikely they would be covered by travel insurance.

The Travel Industry Council, which represents the agencies, said operators would lose out if they scrapped tours and refunded travellers. Its executive director, Joseph Tung Yao-chung, said: 'The airport in Bangkok has not closed and flights to Bangkok have remained normal. The airlines and the hotels there would not refund us for not going.'

Democratic Party lawmaker Kam Nai-wai was angered by the council's explanation, saying: 'It is ridiculously cold-blooded. The agencies were actually sending our people to a war zone. Did they not know that the army had opened fire?'

Legislator Chan Kam-lam, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said he appreciated the difficulties travel agencies faced but said travellers should also be responsible.

'Having no refund is one thing, but a traveller can weigh the risks and is free to judge whether his life is more important than the money they may lose,' he said.

Wing On Travel said it would cancel all tours to Thailand scheduled to depart between yesterday and tomorrow and 300 people who had signed up would get full refunds.

Hong Thai Travel Services and EGL Tours cancelled tours to Bangkok two hours before the government issued a travel warning about flying to Bangkok at 5.55pm. Hong Thai general manager Susanna Lau Mei-sze defended the late decision. 'At the beginning, we thought the situation in Bangkok would be back to normal in one or two days.'

Both Hong Thai and EGL said travellers could opt for a refund but needed to pay an administrative fee of HK$150.

Cathay Pacific Airways said it would waive all charges for tickets issued worldwide on or before yesterday for travel involving Bangkok until Sunday. But a spokesman said travellers on package tours should negotiate with their travel agents.

The Hong Kong government advised against non-essential travel to Bangkok and stepped up its warning on Sunday night, asking people to avoid going. In Macau, a statement issued by the Outbound Tourism Crisis Management Office at 6.30pm yesterday said that since Thai airports were functioning normally and local tour groups had not been greatly affected, the situation did not constitute a tourism emergency.

In Taiwan, Travel Agent Association chairman Yao Ta-kuang said that 'for the time being, there is no need to cancel tours'. He said travel agencies were used to political unrest in Thailand.