Proposals for better regulation of the tourism industry to curb abuses such as forced shopping were rolled out yesterday, and could cost up to HK$22 million a year.
The most expensive of the four options put forward by the government, for a new statutory body to regulate the industry, would need new legislation and could take up to two-and-a half years to implement.
A new department for tourism would take as long, although it would be cheaper at HK$12 million. The extra cost would be on top of the Travel Industry Council's annual HK$24 million budget.
The choices were unveiled at the start of a public consultation on a review of the regulatory framework of the industry, which has seen a number of controversial incidents.
The cost of the new regulations would probably fall on tour agencies and guides since the government would seek to recover the cost by adopting the user-pays principle.
'All options come with their merits and drawbacks. We will gauge opinions on their effects on independence, regulatory effectiveness and sustainability of the tourism industry,' acting secretary for commerce and economic development Greg So Kam-leung said.
The first option would see the Travel Industry Council stay as regulator but add more outside members to its committees. Non-trade members would form the majority on the appeals board and disciplinary committees, and all trade representatives could be removed. It would take six to nine months for the council to amend its rules.
The second option would see the establishment of an independent committee to handle appeals against council decisions. New directives by the council would need approval by the commerce and economic development secretary.
Under this proposal, the Travel Agents Registry, which falls under the Tourism Commission, would need more staff and an extra HK$9 million per year. A bill amending tourism laws would take two years to reach the Legislative Council.
The other two options would see the government take responsibility for the registration of tour guides, through either a new department or statutory body.
The government also invited comments on whether it should introduce a separate licence for tour agencies receiving mainland tourists - the victims in a series of high-profile abuse cases. Tour guides have been accused of berating and abusing mainlanders, particularly for refusing to spend money in shops.
The consultation will run until July 15 and reform proposals will be announced late this year.
The council would continue in its regulatory role until a new regime was in place, Commissioner for Tourism Philip Yung Wai-hung said.
Industry insiders remain divided.
The chairman of the Association of Travel Agents, Paul Leung Yiu-lam, would like the council to keep its watchdog role as 'the government would not necessarily do it better'.
'Increases in costs [brought by the reforms] will have to be shouldered by consumers. We are service providers, after all,' he said.
Simon Hau Suk-kei, chairman of the Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators Association, wants the government to take up the council's role, despite the costs. 'Self regulation doesn't work,' he said.
Leung Fu-wah, one of the tourism council's independent directors, wants the government to combine the options and implement them in stages, eventually establishing a department for tourism.
'Legislative amendment is a must in the long run, but the government can make the council more transparent during the transition,' he said.