Troubled times in the tourist trade

Tour guides who have been accused of forcing mainland tourists to shop say they are being made scapegoats. They say getting tourists to spend money is the only way to survive in the industry.

Roy, a veteran tour guide, said he and his colleagues have been forcing tourists to spend at least HK$2,000 to HK$3,000 each to cover the cost of their package tours. He says about 30 travel agencies with about 200 tour guides are doing the same thing.

Last week, the Travel Industry Council (TIC)suspended a tour guide after he abandoned a group of Qinghai tourists at a ferry pier when they failed to spend enough, but it only issued a warning letter to the travel agent.

The Hong Kong Association of Registered Tour Co-ordinators (Hartco) says tour guides commonly receive no basic salary and rely on commission paid by shops.

On top of that, the guides even have to pay the tour expenses, such as drivers and meals, in advance and then have to earn that money back, said Roy, who has been a guide since the 1970s.

The Hong Kong Tour Guides General Union organised a press conference so that tour guides could express their grievances about working in the industry.

According to Roy, agencies sometimes have to pay up to HK$800 for each tourist to win high-end business, instead of being paid by mainland operators to run the tours.

'The agencies will work out a certain shopping quota for us to cover,' Roy said. 'For Shanghai tourists, agencies used to ask us to make each of them spend HK$2,000. For a group of Yunnan tourists that I took around recently, I had to make each of them spend about HK$1,600. If they didn't buy enough, I had to pay the agency the difference.'

Roy said that desperation forced him to use various means to encourage them to spend as much as possible, including threatening to leave them stranded.

'I told them [they would have] no accommodation for the night, or no meal, or they would be left in the middle of nowhere,' he said. 'But the agency orders us to use such tricks. What can we do? I'm 49 and I have been with this industry for too long. It's difficult for me to change jobs at this point.'

Loretta Lam Choi-yuk, an executive committee member of Hartco and a guide for more than 20 years, said Roy's experience is common among guides.

'Sometimes the shopping quota could be up to HK$3,000 for each tourist,' she said. 'Agencies will charge old people a higher fare, say HK$400 to HK$500 more, because they are less likely to shop.'

Hartco executive member Chris Hui Shuk-seung said guides usually take tourists to jewellery and hi-tech equipment shops in districts such as To Kwa Wan and Hung Hom, where counterfeit products are often sold. 'The guide will tell them that products are sold at wholesale prices, but of course they are not,' he said.

According to the TIC, it cannot do much to stamp out malpractice in the travel sector when tour guides give in to pressure from their employers.

Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said that he was aware of the fact that tour guides were being forced to rely on commission paid to them by shops in order to make their living.

He called on tour guides to unite to fight malpractice among travel agencies that press their guides to meet shopping quotas.

'The trend of Hong Kong travel agents to 'buy a mainland tour' from a mainland agent is very unhealthy, but there is not much the council can do,' he said.

'It is very difficult for us to supervise the practice of every travel agency.'

'Tour guides agree to the terms set by the agencies, so what can we do?'

Tourism Board chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee said negative reports about the treatment of mainland visitors might hurt the city's tourist industry.

'This unhealthy practice might have been in place for a long time, but it should not be tolerated as it will ruin the reputation of Hong Kong,' she said.

Paul Leung Yiu-lam, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents, said that agents should not press guides to meet shopping quotas.

The Hong Kong Association of Registered Tour Co-ordinators said the Travel Industry Council should impose heavier punishments on unscrupulous travel agents instead of putting all the blame on tour guides.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Tour Guides General Union said the TIC should step up supervision of travel agents.

She said the union had drafted and signed an agreement with a dozen travel agencies so far, which clearly stated that zero-charge tours should not be organised.

These stories, by Agnes Lam and Vivienne Chow, ran in yesterday's South China Morning Post.


Should so-called 'zero-fee' tours, during which tourists are forced to buy products at designated shops charging inflated prices, be banned?

Fact box

The number of mainland tourists during the National Day 'golden week' holiday was lower than last year.

Complaints to the Travel Industry Council from mainland tourists are up 74 per cent this year.

Between January and the middle of last month, the council penalised 20 of the 70 shops registered with it for such malpractices as failing to provide customers with full refunds.

The council received 540 complaints up to the middle of last month, up from 347 in the same period last year, and more than the 529 for the whole of last year.

Web links - Hong Kong Tourism Board site - People's Daily Online story says Hong Kong is losing its appeal as a tourist destination - 2003 press release announcing 'individual visit' visas for Guangdong residents


'It is totally unacceptable that tour groups are forced to shop.'

Joseph Tung Yao-chung, executive director of the Travel Industry Council

'Tour guides who break the rules should have their licences suspended for at least a month. And any travel agents who do so should be fined more than HK$10,000 rather than merely being sent a warning letter.'

Ulrica Leung, Tsing Yi

'We don't have any jurisdiction to penalise somebody. We just regulate travel agencies and discipline members to a certain extent.'

Travel Industry Council chairman Ronnie Ho Pak-ting

'The tour guide threatened each of us with having to pay an extra HK$1,200 if no one bought anything.'

Zhu Peixi, a tourist from Hubei


How important is tourism to Hong Kong?

What is the major attraction for mainland tourists?

Should Hong Kong be worried about the increase in tourist complaints?