Travel trade points to abuse of tour licences

The large number of mainland visitors and a lack of control over the travel industry have combined to create perfect opportunity for cheats

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2013, 4:15am

High demand and lack of scrutiny have provided the opportunity for dodgy tour operators to rip off mainlanders, travel industry representatives said yesterday.

They also said unlicensed travel agencies from the mainland were renting licences from local operators to run tours in Hong Kong. These operators were to blame for some disastrous tours in the city, it is said.

So-called "free-riding" local licensed tour guides are paid HK$800 a day to "sit around on the coach and do nothing, without even having to speak", according to Tse Pak-kung, head the Hong Kong Tourism Coalition. But the tours are in fact controlled by the mainland parties.

According to Ricky Tse, head of the Hong Kong Inbound Tours Association, visitors who unwittingly join one of these tours find they have no protection when they run into trouble.

The accompanying tour guides, or even the local travel agent involved, are also ill-equipped to handle problems, such as a lack of accommodation.

Ricky Tse admitted that it was a legal grey area that authorities would find hard to crack.

Officially, inbound tours must be organised by both mainland tour companies and one of the 1,600 corresponding Hong Kong agencies, rather than individual agents. Even then, when unscrupulous agencies are involved, often mainland and local agencies blame each other if things go wrong.

The latest incident in which tourists had to sleep on their coaches demonstrated the urgent need for the rules to be tightened, said Tse Pak-kung. He suggested that licensing be the first area to target.

Last night, it remained unclear what had happened to the tourists whose Lunar New Year holiday to Hong Kong went so wrong. Nor has any mainland tour group acknowledged being involved.

While such tour agencies and agents involved could be liable to prosecution, the Travel Industry Council's lack of manpower meant most were never tracked down, said Tse Pak-kung said.

The watchdog does not require operators to show proof of hotel confirmations, for example. Tse Pak-kung added that it was not hard to get a new operating licence, so the threat of losing their licences was not a big deterrent for crooked operators. "The rules are only hurting those who follow them," he said.

Meanwhile, according to Acting Tourism Commissioner Rosanna Law Shuk-pui, a government study to assess the capacity of the city's tourism sector would be made available to the public once it was completed. However, she gave no time frame for when that will happen.

In 2011, the government proposed a new body to regulate the booming tourism sector. Officials are expected to reveal details of the plan later this year.



March 2010: Tour guide Li Hau-chun hit the headlines when a video was made public of her telling off clients on a bus for not buying enough at shops. The Travel Industry Council decided to permanently revoke her licence in September 2010, while Golden Win International Travel Services, the agency which hired her, was fined HK$47,500. After an appeal, Li had her licence suspended for half a year instead.

May 2010: A tour guide using another guide's identity allegedly refused to let a 65-year-old tourist from Hunan leave a jewellery shop, after she took a group to the store. The tourist, Chen Youming, a retired national table tennis player, died of a heart attack after arguing with the guide.

The council decided to terminate the membership of Win's Travel Agency and fined it HK$7,000 in June 2010 for assigning a person without a tourist guide pass to receive inbound tourists. After an appeal, the penalty was reduced to a year's suspension of the agency's licence.

October 2010: A "one tour group, one tour guide" policy was proposed by the TIC, to ensure that the guide who takes tourists shopping also escorts them around the city, making them accountable for any complaints. A demerit points scheme, which can result in tour guide licences being revoked, and a basic salary to counter the guides' reliance on commission earned from shops, were also proposed. The policy took effect on February 1, 2011.

February 2011: A name-calling spat between a tour guide and couple from Anhui resulted in a fight causing minor injuries. Good Friendship, the tour agency involved, reportedly paid the mainland couple HK$120,000 compensation after Kowloon City Court dropped charges of fighting in a public place.