A group of mainland tourists is ushered off a bus in Hunghom, escorted into a shop selling second-rate goods at extortionate prices and locked inside until they buy something. It's a continuing story told with regularity by China's travel agents. And it's not only mainlanders who are victims. Two weeks ago, a party of wealthy Americans and Australians at the end of a costly two-week trip to the mainland were treated similarly; despite vehement protests they were constantly ushered into vastly expensive shops instead of the temples and museums they wished to visit and had paid handsomely to see. The rogues are local tour guides. They have taken over from electronics shop scoundrels as the major blight of our tourism industry. These leeches are sucking blood from the entire travel trade. They must be stamped out. With 23 million tourists a year, naturally there are going to be complaints. Given that vast army of visitors, the official number of moans and groans seems reasonable. Last year, there were 472 complaints about shopping. In the first three months of this year there were 233 grumbles, which means the rate of complaints is up a worrying 100 per cent. There's a similar picture in the moans about tour guides, with 199 complaints last year and 91 in the first quarter of this year. Visitors specifically complained about tour guides' itineraries. Tourists are finding twice the number of things wrong now as they did a year ago. (The exception is with hotels and restaurants, which reaped a mere 16 gripes between January 1 and April 1.) The Travel Industry Council, strangely enough, welcomes the rising tide of anger; it gives them a reliable reading on what they need to put right to keep visitors satisfied. One major step they have taken in recent years is a system that guarantees shopping satisfaction. If a visitor buys something and is not happy with his purchase, he has 14 days to return the goods. If they are not damaged and he has the receipt, the Travel Industry Council guarantees he gets his money back. This brings some satisfaction to an aggrieved visitor who has been shuttled in and out of stores he never wanted to visit and plied with goods he never wanted to buy. But it doesn't get to the root of the problem, which is tour guides not doing what they promise. The reason is money. In the scramble to get market share, some mainland travel agencies offer free tours in Hong Kong. These are snapped up eagerly by naive players; unsophisticated small-town folk in Hunan don't seem to realise there is no free lunch. Once in the clutches of unscrupulous guides, the mainlanders seem surprised that they are herded relentlessly into shops with tour guides yapping at their heels like guard dogs. Unless the tourists buy, guides don't make a profit. They live on commission. Last year, three tour guides had their licences suspended for three months. This hardly seems sufficient action, nor a punishment that will deter bad elements. 'Clients don't really expect much if they do not pay,' says the TIC executive director, Joseph Tung Yao-chung. He advises discontented travellers to complain to their travel agents back home; agents will stop booking people on troublesome tours. Paul Leung Yiu-lam, chairman of the Hong Kong Inbound Travel Association, says most agents no longer put their parties on free tours. Wong Wai-wing, chairman of the Association of Registered Tour Co-ordinators, says the free tours have been going on for years. 'If visitors do not want to buy, they don't have to,' he claims. HKTB executive director Clara Chong Ming-wah has raised the issue with the Tourism Commission, TIC and travel agents. 'We recognise the issue is serious,' she says. The HKTB is fighting to raise standards through constant revision and expansion of its Quality Tourism Services scheme; its logo signposts merchants who have to stick rigidly to rules and codes of practice. HKTB chairman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee points out her body is a marketing organisation that boosts the destination worldwide, not a tourism authority that disciplines the industry. She has looked at the possibility of tougher new laws. These are badly needed. Trying to steer tourism down the right path is like doing a tango with an octopus; it's hard to know where to go. But one thing is plain: we've got to protect our visitors from unscrupulous bloodsuckers, be they rogue shopkeepers, dishonest taxi drivers or tour guides desperately trying to make a buck by holding people hostage in high-cost shops.