Top travel websites offer unlicensed rooms

Unlicensed guest houses are listed for rental without names and addresses on TripAdvisor and other leading sites, Post probe reveals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 January, 2013, 4:59am

Popular travel websites are offering online bookings for unlicensed guest houses in Hong Kong, exposing tourists to safety hazards, a South China Morning Post investigation reveals.

Websites such as TripAdvisor and Airbnb provide little to no information on the legality of holiday rentals that they carry. Names and full addresses, essential for tourists to cross-check with licensed accommodations listed on the Office of the Licensing Authority's webpage, are usually left out on both their Chinese and English websites.

TripAdvisor, whose subsidiary Flipkey powers the searching and booking of 170,000 holiday homes in more than 7,000 cities worldwide, listed 38 Hong Kong "guest houses" on its rental system. Names of these properties are not available on the pages.

Descriptions of these spaces are generic: "Comfortable Apartment in Tsim Sha Tsui Kowloon" or "Serviced 2 Bedroom Flat Near Central". No full addresses - which should include building name, floor and flat number - are listed. Only maps depicting their rough location are available. In many of the listed accommodations, the pointer on the map falls onto the middle of a street.

On another website, Airbnb, maps are so vague that they often cover several streets in a district. The full address is only provided when a booking is confirmed.

A quick search yields 1,210 results for Hong Kong rooms. Among the results is an establishment in Tsuen Wan that allows customers to stay in capsule beds. The Post ran a check on the accommodation, which turned out to be unlicensed. But it was still available for booking at time of publication.

As for the Chinese audience, website Hong Kong Lodge lists more than 100 flats in the city. Search results contain the names of buildings in which the rooms are located, but give no floor or flat numbers.

On a page on the website, it says "prices of Hong Kong hotels have stayed on high levels … a three-star hotel charges HK$1,100 for a double bed. It is a hefty expenditure for a tourist".

The guest houses offer rooms from HK$400 to HK$500 up.

The site is quick to reassure users of its trustworthiness: "We have gathered several dozens of guest houses and locally-accredited property agencies to offer high-quality guesthouses and vacation rentals at low costs."

Websites such as Hostelworld and Hostelbooker list floor numbers for establishments they carry. Hostelworld has removed hostels known to be illegal.

In an inquiry filed to the Home Affairs Department, the Post asked about the legality of more than 20 flats offered on TripAdvisor and Hong Kong Lodge. A spokesman replied: "Without full addresses, the OLA is unable to check if the premises concerned are licensed or not."

The Office of the Licensing Authority would closely monitor and take action against suspected unlicensed premises listed in websites, he said.

Under the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance, premises providing sleeping accommodation at a fee with a tenancy term of less than 28 consecutive days must obtain a licence. Anyone who operates unlicensed premises is liable to a fine of HK$200,000, imprisonment for two years and a fine of HK$20,000 for each day during which the offence continues.

Stephen Hung Wan-shun, a Law Society council member, said it was debatable if websites should be criminally liable given that it is difficult for them to verify all content they carry.

"The website is contributor to a wrong … if they don't list the accommodations on the internet, nobody would know about the flats," he said.