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New tourism watchdog gets green light in Hong Kong – but it will take at least 2 years before it begins operating

  • Lawmakers pass bill for new Travel Industry Authority for licensing and regulation of travel agents, tour guides and tour escorts
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 8:55pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 10:32pm

Hong Kong took a big step forward in setting up a watchdog to regulate the tourism industry on Thursday as lawmakers passed a bill to better protect travellers’ rights.

A new body called the Travel Industry Authority will be formed for the licensing and regulation of travel agents, tour guides and tour escorts, taking over some existing roles from the Travel Agents Registry and Travel Industry Council.

The law is expected to help combat unscrupulous acts such as coerced shopping through better regulation, but lawmakers worry more shady behaviour will occur in the transitional period before the new authority begins operating.

The board of the authority would have no more than 30 members, with an industry outsider appointed as chairman and the commissioner for tourism as vice-chairman.

At most, the body would have 28 ordinary members but no more than 13 industry players.

The chief executive would appoint the head and all ordinary members.

Tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing said it would take about two years at least for the authority to start operating as a lot of preparatory work, including establishing a committee and enacting subsidiary legislation, were required.

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He said the industry was concerned there would be a flood of unauthorised travel agents and companies after people learned that both the council, which regulated local outbound and inbound travel agents, and the Travel Agents Registry had no law enforcement powers.

“We are worried that some travel agencies would think they were just toothless tigers,” he said.

Yiu said he had received details of some complaints about tour groups and police promised to handle them later, but the force did not deal with them and the tours left.

In such cases, he said lawmakers and officials would need to keep an eye on whether the situation would worsen and then step up cooperation with police.

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Lawmaker Michael Luk Chung-hung of the Federation of Trade Unions expressed similar concerns.

Luk said travel industry unions had told him that they were worried the council might not work so hard during the expected two-year transition period because its “historical mission” was coming to an end.

He added the council had been criticised as “insiders regulating insiders”, and urged the government to be more proactive in keeping the sector running normally during the transition.

But despite the concerns, Yiu said the industry still welcomed the new law because a lot of complaints could not be dealt with by the registry and council because they could not enforce the law. He said the new rules would help crack down on unlicensed travel agencies and tour agents.

The lawmaker said it also would create a fairer business environment for the sector as regulation of online agencies was also stepped up.

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Currently, companies needed to have an office when applying for a licence, but the law helped reduce the industry’s burden by waiving this condition, he added.

The council welcomed the legislature’s green light. Its executive director Alice Chan Cheung Lok-yee believed the new statutory body could monitor the industry in a more efficient way.

She also brushed off concerns that the council would ease up on its work, saying it would continue its tasks until the authority started operating.