Proposed tourism legislation stokes union fears over agencies shifting the blame

Industry representatives concerned that draft Travel Industry Bill will lead to guides bearing responsibility in cases of misconduct

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 December, 2016, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 December, 2016, 7:07pm

Tourism industry representatives have voiced concerns over the government’s draft Travel Industry Bill, which proposed a new regulatory body charged with cleaning up the sector with harsher penalties and greater oversight.

The bill – presented to the Legislative Council for discussion on Wednesday – proposed the establishment of the Travel Industry Authority, criminal charges and even jail time for serious misconduct such as “coerced shopping”, background checks for licence applicants and higher start-up fees for agencies.

“Coerced shopping” describes tours that force mainland travellers into purchasing goods in designated stores, resulting in commissions for tour guides and the organising agency.

Sara Leung Fong-yuen, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Tourism Industry Employees General Union said the government’s draft bill could lead to unfair pressure being mounted on tour guides, leaving them to bear sole responsibility in instances of misconduct.

Speaking on a commercial radio programme on Thursday, Leung said many tour guides were self-employed due to travel agencies’ unwillingness to sign long-term contracts with them.

While the draft bill proposed to punish guides and operators alike, Leung feared agencies would be able to shift responsibility onto the self-employed guides.

“It is a good thing that there is a law to regulate [the industry],” Leung said.

Watch: Ocean Park records HK$241.1 million deficit

“But we are very concerned that the travel agencies may exert pressure on tour guides [to conduct forced shopping] without taking any responsibility.”

Leung urged the government to clarify whether tour agencies would be punished if the related guides were self-employed.

Under the new regulations, shady practices and misconduct would be treated as a criminal offence. Tour guides would face a maximum penalty of a HK$50,000 fine and one year’s imprisonment for misconduct, while their employers would face a HK$100,000 fine and two years in jail.

Ocean Park sees record HK$241.1 million deficit, announces 13.8pc entrance fee rise

The bill also outlined a new HK$500,000 deposit for all travel agency start-ups – a move aimed at weeding out the practice of setting up multiple firms under one licensee.

Jason Wong Chun-tat, chairman of the Travel Industry Council – the current regulator – said the new authority would enable the council to focus its resources on development such as training and crisis handling.

He said the number of mainland tour groups visiting Hong Kong had fallen 40-50 per cent so far this year as regional destinations such as Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea continue to attract increasing numbers of tourists. Strength in the Hong Kong dollar had also eroded the city’s attractiveness, Wong added.

The bill came as one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, Ocean Park, reported its biggest loss since 1987 – HK$241 million in the 2015/2016 financial year. It followed a profit of HK$45.2 million just a year ago.

It is the first time the theme park has fallen into the red since the Sars epidemic in 2003.

Ricky Tse Kam-ting, chairman of the Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators Association, said Hong Kong’s tourism industry had been over-reliant on mainland tourists, which was not healthy. He said the city should attract more tourists from other regions.