Protection for tourists from bullying shop tactics

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 June, 2010, 12:00am

Tour guides will no longer be allowed to force tourists to remain in shops under tighter rules by the Travel Industry Council, following a growing number of complaints from mainland visitors.

The move also follows a mainlander's death from a heart attack after he quarrelled with his tour guide for allegedly refusing to let him leave a jewellery shop.

The new rule will take effect on Tuesday and will require travel agents to state on tour itineraries that guides must not force visitors to stay in shops or make purchases.

Other measures implemented by the council, which is empowered to oversee the industry, include more spot checks by council inspectors at shops where tourists are taken. The inspectors visit about 20 shops a month at the moment but more checks will be carried out.

Operators or agents who break the rules will either be demerited or lose their licence.

'The measures are designed to protect travellers and the city's reputation,' said Joseph Tung Yao-chung, the council's executive director.

The council received 173 complaints from mainland travellers between January and the middle of last month, compared with 105 complaints for the same period last year - a 63 per cent increase. Most of the complaints were shopping related, for example being kept in stores and being forced to buy things.

The growing number of complaints seems to be a trend that is getting worse. There were 313 complaints last year compared with 164 in 2008.

A 65-year-old man from Hunan province died of a heart attack after arguing with a tour guide, who refused to let the group leave a jewellery shop, the man's wife said.

The man said he felt unwell after the incident and was taken to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei on May 22, where he died of a heart attack that day. His wife filed a complaint with the council two days later. The council said it would check the shop's surveillance video to see if any rules were broken.

Tung said the death had prompted the council to implement the new measures. 'We must handle this in a serious manner,' he said.

Paul Leung Yiu-lam, president of the Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents, said the new measures should have been implemented a long time ago. 'It's common sense that tourists should be allowed to leave shops,' he said. 'They won't spend money just because they are locked up.'

But he said the problem was not Hong Kong's alone. 'The National Tourism Administration of the People's Republic of China has to collaborate with us to find a real solution because many mainland travel agencies offer unreasonably cheap packages, which entail compulsory shopping.'

Tourism sector lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun agreed new measures had been needed for some time but said more had to be done to protect travellers.

Tung said the tax collected from outbound tours last month was HK$1.6 million compared with HK$721,000 for the same period last year. More than HK$7 million was received in tax from January to May this year - a 36 per cent increase, he said.