Mainland Chinese tourists stuck at border after Taiwan visas refused
Local agencies may have to verify that tourists have visas after group is refused entry to Taiwan
Fanny W. Y. Fung and Jennifer Ngo
Hong Kong travel agencies could be asked to make sure mainland tourists travelling to third destinations via the city have the necessary documents to do so, in the wake of a visa fiasco that left an angry group of tourists refusing to leave the Lok Ma Chau border crossing.
The travellers were part of a 480-strong tour group from Jilin province on a two-week trip to Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taiwan. After two days in Hong Kong, the majority of them departed for Taiwan on Friday, but 170 were left in limbo because their Taiwanese visas had not been issued.
Last night a hard-core group of 41 were still at Lok Ma Chau after they refused the offer of cash compensation to return to Jilin from the people who organised their tour.
The Shenzhen travel agency responsible for handling their visa applications broke the news that some of the travellers' visas had been denied on Friday.
It is not clear why some of the visa applications were successful and others were not.
After being put on buses to the border at Chek Lap Kok airport on Friday night, the angry tourists refused to cross the border when they got to the Lok Ma Chau Public Transport Interchange.
Some of them even stopped the coach driver from continuing on. "The bus driver said some of them wouldn't let him drive anywhere, refused to let him drive away," said Hong Kong Travel Industry Council director Joseph Tung Yao-chung.
The tourists said the tour was organised by Infinitus, a direct sales health-food company and a subsidiary of the Lee Kum Kee Health Products Group, which is itself a subsidiary of Lee Kum Kee Group, a Hong Kong-based company well known for its cooking sauces that does business in 60 countries.
Members of the group were either employees of Infinitus, its customers or members of its direct sales network.
Unhappy about the cancellation of their trip to Taiwan, the tourists argued with travel agency staff and called the Hong Kong police, who then contacted the Travel Industry Council to help mediate.
The travellers staged a protest at Lok Ma Chau yesterday morning complaining that they had been victims of a scam.
Some alleged that they had been forced to shop in Hong Kong, but the council said those who filed complaints did not mention any forced shopping. Council officials went to the border point to mediate the negotiations for compensation.
On Hong Travel, the local agency responsible for the Hong Kong leg of the tour, could not be reached for a comment.
The local tour guide, Ma Lap-tung, said it was the mainland travel agency's responsibility to handle the visa applications to Taiwan. "It is not our company's business. The mainland travel agency is responsible for handling visa applications to Taiwan. We don't have the information," Ma said.
She also denied the travellers' claim that they had been forced to shop during their stay in the city. "You know, those mainlanders are bandits," Ma said.
By 10pm yesterday, most of the tourists had accepted the Shenzhen travel agency's offer of cash compensation of 5,000 yuan (HK$6,330) per person and an air ticket to return to Jilin.
However, 41 of them still refused to compromise after seven hours of negotiations.
Jiao Xu, one of the outraged tourists who spoke on behalf of the group, said they had asked for 10 times the tour fees they had paid "for emotional and psychological damage".
"This is a consumer right," he said.
The council's chairman, Michael Wu Siu-ieng, said the Hong Kong travel agency had no role in the application for Taiwanese visas. But after the dispute, he said the tourism watchdog would review its guidelines to help prevent a repeat of the fiasco.
" We will discuss - especially for Taiwan - having guidelines to say that travellers must have their Taiwanese visas ready before they even come to Hong Kong, to ensure they won't be stranded in Hong Kong. We will look into this, because one trip with multiple destinations is a new and growing mode of travelling," he said.
Wu declined to say if they would blacklist the mainland travel agency.
Lee Kum Kee Health Products Group said it had investigated the incident and last night issued a statement saying the tour had nothing to do with the company, and that it was organised by the distributors themselves.
In a previous statement, it maintained that the company had always commissioned "professional travel agencies" when organising tours for its distributors and staff.