Proposals a welcome step to closing illegal guest houses
The influx of visitors continues to put Hong Kong's tourism capacity to the test. With only 1,629 registered hotels and guest houses catering for tens of millions each year, a market for illegal accommodation is inevitable. While a licensing regime was put in place to deal with the problem as early as 1991, and enforcement stepped up with some 10,000 operations last year, convictions only number around 160, mainly because of difficulties in gathering evidence. Deterrence is further weakened by the low level of penalties - usually just a few thousand dollars. The need for an overhaul is evident.
Thankfully, the government is taking the issue seriously. Under its proposals, the maximum penalties for operating unlicensed guest houses will be raised from HK$200,000 to HK$500,000 and from two years' imprisonment to three. The law will also be revised to make it easier to haul offenders to court. Instead of having to catch operators on the spot, prosecutions can be based on circumstantial evidence, such as advertising or the presence of guesthouse items like towels and bed linen . Belated as it is, the review can, hopefully, curb the mushrooming illegal trade.
It is good that the consultation goes further to tackle the anomaly involving registered guest houses in non-commercial buildings. As the licensing regime only considers fire and building safety, some guest houses have been approved even though the buildings in which they are located are restricted to private residential use. The oddity came to light last December after a deadly blaze broke out in one of the licensed premises inside a North Point building. The government proposes that licences will only be approved or renewed when there is proof that the guest house does not violate the building's deed of mutual covenant - an owners' agreement on what may or may not be carried out. Although the proposed change may put some 200 premises out of business, it is the right thing to do to enhance safety and compliance. Given the importance of tourism in our economy, the reform deserves public support.