New regulations to improve integrity of tourism industry are welcome

Unethical practices and lax self-regulation are harming a pillar of Hong Kong’s economy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 1:13am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2016, 1:13am

Tourism is a pillar of Hong Kong’s economy. But the industry faces unprecedented competition, especially from rival regional and mainland theme parks, and the city’s reputation as a tourist destination is therefore paramount. With the industry allowed to regulate itself however, unscrupulous practices by agencies and tour guides have sullied that reputation. This has finally prompted the government to promise a statutory authority with power to crack down on abuses. Unveiled last week, draft legislation forming a new travel industry authority proposes harsher sanctions on offending guides and operators than the current fines and licence suspensions, including criminal liability for serious misconduct.

Unethical practices are not solely to blame for a sustained fall in mainland visitors. Economic headwinds and currency movements have more to do with that. But such conduct, not to mention perceived negative sentiment towards mainland visitors, has done nothing to enhance the city’s reputation as a shopping paradise or encourage repeat visitors.

New Hong Kong tourism law set to target shady operators

Tourism commissioner Cathy Chu Man-ling hopes the new law will finally eradicate practices such as “coerced shopping”, where mainland visitors on unbelievably cheap city tours are forced to shop in designated stores which pay commissions to guides and operators. She said that every time these tactics resulted in unfavourable publicity, inbound tours would drop immediately. It is therefore good that the majority of the authority’s members are to be appointed from outside the industry to ensure independence and impartiality.

Meanwhile, the city’s biggest tourist attraction, Ocean Park, reported a loss of HK$241.1 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year, reflecting a sharp fall in mainland visitors. Clearly Hong Kong has to do more to recover its market position. The new law is one way forward. With arrivals falling, many tour operators are tempted to squeeze margins and scrap scruples to get business. Another way is to meet the challenge of regional competition with investment in products and marketing that keep up with trends.