Few arrests in tourism sector for breaching unfair trade rules despite many complaints

Customs officers receive over 300 complaints a year; they point to cases involving denial of a seat on a plane and providing false information

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 9:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 June, 2017, 10:43am

Just five people from tour operators and airlines were arrested in the past 17 months over unfair trade practices even though the Hong Kong customs department received over 450 relevant complaints during the period.

The latest Customs and Excise Department figures show that 455 complaints were received from January 2016 to April this year. The investigation into 97 of the cases is ongoing, and of the remaining 358 cases, in which the probes were completed, only three resulted in prosecution and two in arrests. No criminal evidence was found in 140 other cases, and the remaining 215 have been withdrawn.

Cases involving an arrest included one in which a traveller was denied a seat on a plane even though he had a confirmed ticket, customs officers said.

Prosecutions are rare in the tourism sector, said Kwan Kin-keung, superintendent of a customs squad investigating unfair trade practices. “Most of them are merely disputes ... We encourage the industry to make contracts clearer to consumers to reduce misunderstandings.”

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The city’s trade descriptions law was amended in 2012 to prohibit practices including false product descriptions and misleading omissions.

In 2016, 40 per cent of unfair trade complaints from travellers involved tour agencies while 17 per cent were about travel websites.

Reports about airlines accounted for 27 per cent – and most were about budget airlines, according to the customs department, which enforces unfair practice rules.

Three cases have led to prosecutions and one operator has been found guilty. An education centre was convicted for providing false information about a study tour to Japan. It was fined HK$3,000 and ordered to pay HK$35,600 in compensation to those affected.

The other four cases are still before the courts or under investigation.

In May, a female manager of an airline was arrested after a passenger was denied a seat despite having a confirmed online reservation.

In another case, a travel agency was suspected to have violated the law by failing to book a direct flight as promised.

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Kwan said most reports did not result in charges. For example, consumers have complained about tour agencies taking them to shops. Reports against airlines usually involve flight cancellations or delays.

“In many cases, the situation is covered in the contract,” Kwan said. “Consumers are not happy with the quality of service, but there may not be an unfair trade practice.”

Joseph Tung Yao-chung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council, said growing awareness of the trade descriptions law had seen travellers turn to customs officers for help when disputes happened.

“We always encourage travel agencies to make the itinerary very clear and provide sufficient information,” Tung said. “But some consumers don’t pay attention.”

Lai Ka-lok, divisional commander of the customs’ Unfair Trade Practice Investigation Division, said consumers were advised to read the contracts, especially the terms about compensation and additional charges, before purchasing travel products.

When booking flights or accommodation online, travellers should take screenshots, which can be used as evidence if they want to complain about unfair trade practices, Lai added.

The customs department received 3,788 reports concerning unfair trade practices in 2016, half of which were about gym and yoga products.

Beauty and hair products came in second with 456 complaints, while tourism was third.