City needs a statutory tourism authority more than ever
The government said it would take three years to set up an independent statutory body to oversee travel agents, tour guides and escorts and hold them to account for violations of their duty to customers. That was about two years ago - plenty of time for the idea of a travel industry authority to die a natural death if there was no real need for it, which would have pleased many vested interests in the industry. Any hope of that has surely been dashed by tales of the latest experiences of mainland visitors to Hong Kong. For the sake of the city's reputation, the government needs to fast-track the reform and plug loopholes in the present regime.
Pending the formation of a statutory authority, the Travel Industry Council was tasked with drafting guidelines for agents and guides. It was hoped these would counter the perception of bias and conflict of interest arising from dominant industry representation on the council. But they have not prevented what the council calls a "serious violation" of the rules.
This time, according to mainland travellers, a local travel agent who took over a cheap four-day tour from a mainland partner ended it after two days, leaving the visitors to sleep in their coach instead of a promised three-star hotel. One tour member described the ordeal as "like falling from heaven to hell", which seems apt given that the visitors were looking forward to "shopping heaven" in Hong Kong.
Despite the tens of billions invested in tourism infrastructure, the industry in Hong Kong is still about shopping. A reputation for fair dealing established through generations of tourists must now be upheld with the biggest market of all - mainlanders. It was tarnished only three months ago when mainland authorities reported complaints, corroborated by internet users and police in several provinces, that forced shopping had resurfaced. Tourists said they were being locked inside assigned stores and forced to buy dubious or fake goods during ridiculously low-priced tours.
Hong Kong is an expensive city. Tourists who pay about HK$1,500 for a five-day visit should be prepared for disappointment. Greater effort must be made to shape expectations realistically. Scrutiny is not made any easier by the involvement of mainland companies in marketing and booking. But since they must rely on local partners, officials on both sides of the border should co-operate to tighten licensing rules and close loopholes.