HK agents missing big travel surge

THERE has been an upsurge in cross-border travel by Hongkong and China residents and the growth is expected to continue at a healthy pace with the opening of China, say local travel agents.

While Hongkong's open market has seen the mushrooming of travel agencies, to the benefit of consumers who get some of the best prices in the world for air tickets and group tours, China's industry has not been able to extend the same benefits to people wanting to travel out of China.

There is also a possibility that China's 2,000 travel agencies may not be able to cope with the rapid growth in the tourism market.

Despite the demand for more travel agencies, the Government does not allow foreigners to set up travel agencies through joint ventures.

''At present, foreign travel agents, including those from Hongkong, are only allowed to set up joint ventures in 12 designated resorts,'' said Swire Travel managing director Alan Wong.

The 12 designated resorts are at the planning stage.

''Hongkong travel agents only have representative offices in China at the moment,'' he said.

As a representative office, a travel agent's role is limited to liaison.

''The travel agent liaises with the client, finds out what he wants, then gets back to the Hongkong office,'' Mr Wong said.

''All arrangements like payments and issuing of tickets have to be done out of China to Hongkong.

''The travel agent in China cannot accept payments or issue tickets. This means quite a lot of time is spent in getting things done.'' Mr Wong hopes that the Beijing Government will allow foreigners to set up joint ventures in the near future.

''The whole process will then be quicker and more efficient,'' he said.

Mr Wong said that if there were more travel agencies, consumers would be better served as they would get more competitive prices for their tickets.

''At present, a traveller usually buys his ticket direct from the airlines which means he would not be able to get things like special fares or any discount off the published rates,'' he said.

While more Chinese are travelling out of the country, there also has been a significant growth of Hongkong residents travelling to the mainland.

According to China International Travel Service (CITS), one of the largest travel agencies handling travel into China, Hongkong residents are becoming more interested in seeing China before rapid development changes its natural beauty.

''The increased interest from Hongkong people in China is partly due to them wanting to see the country in its natural state,'' said CITS manager Sun Bing.

''One of the major attraction for the moment is the Yangtze River. Everyone is eager to see it before it changes its course through the development of the river valley.'' Add to that, Mr Sun believes Hongkong people were too familiar with Guangdong and Shenzhen and wanted to see less-explored parts of China.

He also said travellers from Hongkong tended to dislike exploring a place by themselves and hence usually signed up with tour groups.

''It is therefore easy for us to get people from Hongkong for our tour groups into China,'' he said.

Mr Sun said when his agency first opened its Hongkong and Macau department in 1991, they had 6,000 travellers.

''The number increased to over 33,000 last year and we expect the figure to go up this year,'' he said.