Watchdog reform won't prevent forced shopping

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am


A plan to revamp the watchdog body which oversees Hong Kong's tourism industry won't stop the practice of forced shopping for mainland tourists, industry insiders say.

With a public consultation on how to improve regulation of the industry ending tomorrow, tour guides and their union representatives say nothing less than an improvement in pay and conditions for tour guides will stop the abuse - both mental and physical - of tourists taken to shops and pressured to buy items.

Tour guides have had their commission rates cut and are receiving fewer tours than before, meaning they are trying to squeeze more spending out of people to maintain their incomes, a union says.

'Guides received 3 to 10 per cent commission on tour members' spending in 2007. Nowadays it's zero to 7 per cent,' said Wong Ka-ngai, chairman of the Hong Kong Tour Guides General Union.

Since the Travel Industry Council rolled out a 'one tour-one guide' policy, guides had seen a drop in the number of tours they received because they had to stick to the same group for a longer period.

Prior to that, guides could make around HK$20,000 if each tour member spent HK$2,000. Now they were aiming for an ambitious HK$5,000 spending per person, Wong said.

Although the council's rules required tour agencies to pay guides a basic salary, they did not spell out how much. It was still the norm for guides to live on commission, he said.

Four options are outlined in the government's consultation: two would involve reforming the council and transferring some of its powers to independent bodies. The others would see the council's watchdog role taken up by a statutory body or a government department.

Tony Tse Sze-ming, programme director for Polytechnic University's school of hotel and tourism management, said the reform proposals would increase the transparency and credibility of the watchdog.

'But the four proposals have nothing to do with zero tour fees and tour guide income,' he said. Both were at the heart of the conflict between tourists and guides.

Forced shopping hit the headlines when a guide was caught on video berating tourists for not spending enough. In another case, a guide ended up in a scuffle with a couple over shopping.

Although mainland authorities ban tour agencies from operating zero-tour fees, many local agencies take cut-rate tour groups in the hope of earning commission from their shopping spending.

It was vital to have local rules to tackle the problem, Tse said.

Council chairman Michael Wu Siu-ieng said pay and tour fees were not the main focus of the consultation. If tour guides received no basic salary, they should tell the council.

The council wants non-industry members to make up the majority on its board and to allow them to participate in elections for the post of council chairman. It would seek approval from the government before implementing any new guidelines.

While it would like to keep its investigative powers, it proposes that any disciplinary action should be carried out by an independent body.

The industry is split on the government's options, and especially their cost-effectiveness and credibility.

An additional HK$9 million to HK$22 million per year would be needed to implement the reforms, with the option of creating a statutory body the most costly to implement.