Action needed to protect HK's tourism credentials

The revelations of a tourist guide in today's City section are shocking; that tourism, one of our mainstays, is allowed to be carried out in such a damaging manner to Hong Kong's reputation bodes ill for the future of the industry unless tough action is taken.

Designing package tours so that they focus most on shops where commission can be earned rather than on seeing attractions, pressuring tourists to make purchases, selling them counterfeit goods and abusing them when they do not meet expectations is a short-sighted way to do business. A quick profit may be turned, but the long-term damage as word-of-mouth spreads the message will quickly drive away customers.

Central to the problem is the practice of guides not getting a salary and therefore having to earn money through commissions. In a highly-competitive market, this leaves the door wide open to abuse.

In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that some tours to Hong Kong being sold on the mainland do not indicate full itineraries or require a contract, as they do here. Moves to make tours more transparent and to put contracts on a sounder footing are therefore welcome. Mainland visitors should also be made aware of their legal rights.

Tourists are routinely pressured to spend thousands of dollars on goods while on city tours and threatened with being left stranded if they do not buy freely enough.

Yet industry watchdog groups only sprang into action this month when they learned that tourists from Qinghai had been abandoned by their local guide when they refused his repeated requests to buy souvenirs.

They already knew guides worked on commission rather than salaries and that hundreds of complaints about tours were received up to August.

But this had not stirred sufficient concern among their members. It would seem to indicate a failure to grasp the fundamentals of one of our most important industries.

Suggesting heavy penalties for travel agencies and guides who operate improperly, as Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung indicated at the weekend, will help - but it will not solve the problem. As long as guides are not guaranteed a wage for each tour they take, they will be forced to find a means to make it up through commissions.

Worse for Hong Kong, considerable damage has already been done. Tourism is a word-of-mouth industry where bad impressions are passed on freely among relatives, friends, work colleagues and in internet chat rooms.

Tourism is not something we can treat off-handedly: It is worth tens of billions of dollars to Hong Kong each year.

The industry should take firm and urgent action to avoid further harming our city's image.