Door must be shut on unlicensed guest houses

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 July, 2009, 12:00am

Guest houses can be a nuisance to neighbours. Worse still, those operating without a licence or failing to meet safety standards pose a fire hazard. A fatal fire that broke out at a suspected unlicensed guest house on Tuesday night is a stark reminder of the danger. A mainland visitor was killed and an elderly man was critically injured, while more than 100 residents from the building had to be evacuated. On paper, the penalty for running an unlicensed guest house can be severe, including imprisonment. In practice, lax enforcement means operators who exploit loopholes can do so with virtual impunity.

Since authorities allowed mainlanders to visit Hong Kong without joining a tour in 2003, guest houses of varying quality have sprung up, offering budget accommodation. Most are in mixed commercial and residential complexes, but quite a few can be found in buildings that have been zoned as exclusively residential. Such residential operations are illegal, but understaffed inspection teams from the home affairs and fire services departments mean many can operate for long periods without being detected. According to Paul Tse Wai-chun, a lawmaker for the tourism sector, only guest houses that are applying for a licence are likely to be inspected thoroughly. But since that process can be difficult and lengthy, there is every incentive for operators not to bother with getting a licence or to start accepting guests while the application is being processed.

Despite their different clientele, guest houses and one-woman brothels operate in a similar manner. To maximise profit, the property owner partitions a flat into smaller units to rent separately - to prostitutes or tourists. Both types of business pose a nuisance to neighbours, as strangers may visit at all hours. Guest houses, which usually operate in older buildings, especially put pressure on electricity and drainage facilities. A common industry practice is for a licensed operator to run several unlicensed houses in the same building. Unsuspecting clients think they are renting licensed premises, while the operator is able to cut overheads. But the most dangerous problem is substandard fire safety. Without proper inspections, it is unlikely owners of unlicensed premises would voluntarily work to meet safety standards.

Clearly, the licensing and inspection system is not functioning as effectively as it should. Those who flout the law are, more often than not, tolerated. This cannot continue. Inspections need to be carried out more frequently, including the deployment of undercover agents. Illegal guest houses should be shut down, and their owners punished. But the application process should also be shortened and simplified for legitimate operators. There is high demand for budget accommodation. Properly regulated guest houses help promote tourism. They should be encouraged - and rewarded for following the rules.