Accusations fly over new travel alert system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am

The government was accused of misleading legislators, and the travel industry said it was confused after the mainland, Taiwan and Macau - three of the most popular destinations - were excluded from a new travel alert scheme announced yesterday.

The colour-coded alert system, which takes effect on October 20, is designed to advise outbound travellers of the risks, if any, of going to 60 frequently visited places. Risks are graded amber to black, with black being the highest. But when it was announced by the Security Bureau yesterday, Hong Kong's three neighbours were omitted.

Legislators and travel trade representatives said the omission had never been mentioned in previous discussions on the scheme.

Legislative Council security panel vice-chairman James To Kun-sun said the government had deliberately misled Legco, the travel industry and the public. 'Such a serious omission was not mentioned in the briefing to Legco in July,' he said.

Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said he did not understand why the three places had been omitted. 'I guess the Hong Kong government might have thought it was inappropriate to issue travel warnings for different parts of the same country,' he said.

Legislator Audrey Eu Yuet-mee said it showed the government was timid and 'politically too sensitive'.

The bureau said the system covered overseas countries, and the government would issue travel alerts through press releases for places not included. Nations covered include Thailand, Japan, the United States, Britain, France, Australia and Egypt.

The new system was suggested after chaos in November and December, when Hong Kong visitors were stranded in Thailand when protesters blockaded Bangkok's main airport. The present alert system was criticised at the time for not indicating clearly the threat to the public.

Under the new system, an amber alert will indicate signs of threats in an area, and advise travellers to closely monitor the situation and exercise caution. A red alert indicates people should change travel plans and avoid non-essential travel to the region, while a black alert indicates travellers should avoid all travel to the affected areas.

The public will be able to check the alerts on a dedicated webpage.

For places not among the 60 in the Hong Kong scheme, hyperlinks will be provided to databases compiled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the National Tourism Administration, and by overseas authorities such as the Australian, British and Canadian governments.

The travel industry has been preparing to link with the new system, with insurer Blue Cross using it to determine its insurance coverage.

Hong Thai Travel Services' general manager, Susanna Lau Mei-sze, said tours would be cancelled if a black alert was issued and customers would be eligible for refunds if they paid before the alert was issued.