During the Lunar New Year holidays, a tour guide and two mainland tourists came to blows over shopping. The news was widely reported here and on the mainland. It was also reported that, before the holiday period, the Guangdong authorities began to send undercover agents posing as tourists to Hong Kong to monitor tour leaders and crack down on rogue guides.
The latest case was branded a 'tourism scandal' by the mainland media. State broadcaster CCTV claimed the incident brought shame on the city's international image as a shoppers' paradise while mainland netizens launched an all-out attack and threatened to boycott Hong Kong as a tourist destination.
But, Hong Kong shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame for the scandal; the mainland authorities as well as those greedy tourists are responsible, too. Since China's economic rise and the launch of the Individual Visit Scheme in 2003, the city has become a premier tourism and shopping spot for mainlanders.
This is understandable because the yuan has continued to surge against the local currency - its appreciation effectively gives them a 15 per cent discount. Another point is that Hong Kong truly offers high-quality merchandise and provides a large variety of choices at bargain prices. And the city's 'No Fakes Pledge' Scheme to guarantee the standard of goods is definitely a big confidence booster. That's why Hong Kong is not only a place to buy luxury brands; it is also a good place for affluent mainlanders to buy daily necessities such as baby formula.
Many mainland travel agencies offer incredibly cheap tour packages to Hong Kong. The tour group in this case was not a so-called 'zero-cost tour group' as it charged 1,700 yuan per head. But after they reaped big profits on top of outsourcing charges and commissions, there was not much left for the Hong Kong agent.
Even worse, some local tour companies reportedly pay to 'buy' tour groups from their mainland agents, aiming to make money from shop commissions. Some of them even own or operate retail shops selling jewellery, electronic goods and watches. So, bringing mainland tourists to their shops is their main line of business. This so-called 'selling and buying' of tour groups for profit is banned by the central government.
Nevertheless, the practice has spawned a great number of tour guides who are willing to accept no salary because they can get huge commissions by forcing tourists to shop. On the mainland, it's common to see guides bully and force tourists to buy goods. Hong Kong has been using the same modus operandi on mainland tourists for years. It only came to light after the media exposed the case of local guide Li Hau-chun, who was caught on video last year berating mainland visitors for not spending enough.
We cannot rule out the possibility that the latest case was a deliberate act to stir trouble by refusing to shop. The complainants were reportedly given HK$120,000 in compensation. Both Hong Kong and mainland agents are responsible for creating this odd situation, which needs to be corrected. Tourism is one of the four major pillars of Hong Kong's economy. Our tourism industry cannot afford further harm from the random acts of a handful of unethical guides and tour companies. The government needs to stop people reaping profits purely from sales commissions.
It is not right to allow the Travel Industry Council to regulate the sector, because it is composed mostly of industry players. The government needs to review the council's role and powers and set up a new independent statutory body to monitor travel agencies.
The government should also give tourists more control over their itineraries and limit fixed-schedule shopping to the last day of the trip to minimise manipulation. It needs to work with mainland authorities to stem the malpractice. It could also extend the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement to cover tourism so local tour firms can operate independently without relying on mainland agents. We must take immediate steps to root out misconduct and restore our tourism industry to glory.
Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator