Leisure and Cultural Services Department targets booking touts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 4:34am

Officials in charge of public sports venues plan to impose penalties and booking restrictions to curb online touting of permits to use the facilities after coming under fire again for tolerating such activities.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department, attacked by legislators last year on the issue, received another kick yesterday from the Ombudsman, which said its booking practices encouraged touts.

Hours after the watchdog's report was released, the department proposed measures it said it would enforce by 2014 after consulting district councils.

Touts buy permits - sometimes for many sessions a day - then offer them for sale online at a profit. As the booking requires an identity card number, the tout has to be present at the venue when the purchaser arrives to use it. But the touts get around this by exploiting the department's practice of allowing standby users to take up the booking free if the original hirer fails to show up after 10 minutes.

It is suspected this is often planned, with the people who register on the standby list being those who have bought permits to use the fields from unauthorised traders.

In his report, Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin said the frequency with which it was happening at public soccer pitches indicated the touting problem was serious.

The investigation found that touts charged HK$420 for an artificial-turf soccer pitch, more than double the government charge of HK$168. For hard-surface pitches that should be free, the touts typically charge HK$80.

From July to September last year, almost 40 per cent of hirers who booked artificial-turf pitches failed to show up and the pitches were taken by standby users in almost 90 per cent of the cases.

"Soccer is a team sport," senior investigation officer Zina Wong Chun-ah said. "It is intriguing that a dozen people should show up together to register as 'standby' users. This suggests touting may be serious."

The department said yesterday it would cancel the standby arrangement at its soccer pitches on a trial basis.

It also proposes people who breach booking rules - including hirers found to be touts and those who repeatedly fail to show up for their booking - should be disqualified from registering venues for a specified time. Booking restrictions will limit an individual to two sessions a day at the same venue. In an effort to give touts less time to make sales, the pre-booking period would be reduced from 30 days to 10.

Over the past two years the department detected only eight cases of unauthorised transfers, which Lai described as "inadequate".

Department staff should step up identity checks of facility users to make touting more difficult, Lai said. Unauthorised transfers might still be possible, but the practice would be discouraged as touts would have to turn up at the pitches every time to secure access to the facilities.