Calls for a new body to monitor tour firms
SCMP headline, February 9
Let's review how the flocks of sheep in this town are tended, as it seems we have politicians who do not quite understand why and how sheep are brought here.
They are brought here to be fleeced of money. That's the entire and total explanation of why anyone brings sheep here and if I wrote an entire library on the topic I could enlighten you no further.
Now as to the 'how'. First of all, they are congregated in pens just across the border and taken across it in buses. If they come in by air they land in Shenzhen as it has lower landing costs than Hong Kong. More than 82 per cent of all visitors from the mainland come in by land.
The sheep are then taken to a series of industrial barns in Hung Hom and To Kwa Wan. They may also be taken to hotels, tourist restaurants and the odd fake shrine of a tourist trap but that's just normal shepherding and is kept to a minimum. The object remains to fleece them and this is done in those big barns on the east side of the Kowloon peninsula.
Once pushed into a barn from the bus, the sheep find there is no way out except to pass right through all the shops that the barn contains to an exit that may be on a different floor. They will only be shown that door if they first leave enough of their money in the barn. In return for their money they are given hugely overpriced low-grade jewellery.
If they refuse the fleecing, that exit door will remain closed to them and they will be kept in the barn while their shepherd screams at them. Once they buy (they almost all do), and the door opens for them, they will find it leads via a short bus trip to another barn where the process is repeated.
Only when the shepherd is satisfied that they have been fleeced naked are they indulged in any further normal shepherding but, again, it is kept to a minimum, as it is now time to bus them back across the border and bring in the next herd of sheep.
Terrible isn't it?
Yes, it is, but let's get a few things straight. This is a mainland equation, not a Hong Kong one. The junior tour guides are hired locally perhaps, but everything else - tour vendors, jewellery, the jewellery shops, tourist hotels and even buses - are directly mainland owned or direct the bulk of their profits back across the border.
The requirement of the shops is that they are big and in out-of-the-way areas so that tour victims who escape the tour have nowhere to go. This also helps keep the rents down, which yields more profit on the jewellery sales.
But don't think for a moment that any truly independent shop owner, if there are any, is allowed to keep these profits.
What we have here is one set of outsiders fleecing another set, but doing it in Hong Kong because that's where the fleecees say they want to go. And when these fleecees then complain they have been fleeced, we blame ourselves for it rather than their compatriots who fleeced them. Why?
Let's remember that the fleecees really don't have much of a complaint anyway. It can hardly be a surprise that they don't know the value of jewellery if they think that the value of a tour is only the few hundred yuan they pay for their flight, accommodation, meals and outings.
Our problem is that we cannot really stop it without closing the border or without passing laws that would undermine civil liberties. It's a price we pay for those liberties. All we can really do is remind ourselves that the problem is restricted to mainland tours, that we are not beneficiaries, and that these tourists invite it on themselves with their low tour payments.
But it's not enough for our politicians. Now they talk of establishing an official tourism regulator. Soon we will have a new government department with hundreds of high-paid bureaucrats shovelling paperwork at each other to create examinations, certifications, registrations, licences, suspension procedures, suspension appeal procedures and associate degrees at the polytech.
And you know what? It will protect tourists from fleecing just about as much as the Securities and Futures Commission protects investors from fleecing, which is nothing at all.
But it will cost a fair whack of money, which we will raise through a levy on tourists.
And then at last a Hong Kong entity will also make some money from these mainland tour groups. Good idea. If we are to take the blame for ripping them off let's at least justify a small portion of that blame.