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Friday, April 21, 2017, 10:11

Misguided tours

By Willa Wu

The tourism industry in HK continues efforts to repair its reputation after some ugly incidents involving coerced shopping some years back, but the real problem rests with a handful of cut-rate tour operators who continue to sully the city’s reputation. Willa Wu reports.

Misguided tours
Tourists are walking along the pedestrian street on the Peak, where they hold a panoramic view of the whole city of Hong Kong. (Provided To China Daily)

They became the focus of a scandal across the entire nation and a blemish on Hong Kong’s reputation a few years ago — the warrior tour guides. Videos were splashed everywhere of guides hectoring and badgering Chinese mainland tourists, calling them cheap and ungrateful. One tourist died after an encounter with a tour guide who had demanded the man buy something at the retail shop where they had stopped.

The incidents brought to light a shameful condition of worker exploitation afflicting Hong Kong’s tourism industry. The tour guides were victims too. Tour operators had forced the guides to live on the commissions earned from sales to tourists at retail shops. Otherwise, the guides received almost no compensation. Today, the guides continue their struggle.

Filling out a family information form for his daughter, Wong Ka-ngai, 43, paused when he came to the space to enter “Occupation”. His 9-year-old daughter, sitting beside Wong, said in a sarcastic tone, “Now quick, daddy. The whole world knows you are a tour guide.”

The little girl’s remarks hurt. He was employed in one of Hong Kong’s four pillar industries, tourism, and yet tour guides get little recognition or respect. The good reputation of the city’s tour guides has never been reinstated and they are still poorly paid.

Once upon a time, tour guides had both money and respect. Many people envied their jobs. It took 10 years for that to change.

“The public viewed us as manipulative and money-oriented. But the problem is never us,” said Wong. The root of the problem lies in the way they get paid.

The big squeeze

Misguided tours
Sculpture of Bruce Lee on Avenue of Stars is one of the famous tourist attractions of Hong Kong. (Provided To China Daily)

After losing his savings on the stock market back in 2000, Wong heard he could make HK$20,000 a month on average, as a tour guide. It sounded good to him.

“Tourism at that time had low recruitment standards with no certification required. The ability to speak the Mandarin and Minnan dialect, a local language mostly used in Fujian province, were guarantees of a job,” Wong explained. Nowadays, tour guides are required to have a Tourist Guide Pass issued by the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong (TIC), the government-authorized regulatory agency, and must take a series of courses.

Wong started out as an apprentice to a senior tour guide. The first three years were happy. He got a basic income from a “service fee”. He was paid HK$20-30 per tourist. There were commissions when tourist clients bought things from the frequently visited retail shops on the travel itinerary. Relationships with the tourists were friendly and he sometimes received gifts.

“I was able to serve at least 14 tourist groups in a month. My salary reached HK$30,000 in peak seasons,” Wong said with pride.

All that changed in July 2003, with the introduction of the Individual Visit Scheme. Residents from 49 mainland cities were permitted to visit the city on their own, while visitors from hundreds of remaining cities on the mainland still had to come in group tours.

Monthly income for tour guides crashed. Fewer tour groups came. Then the tour companies stopped paying service fees to keep a greater share of tourism income, squeezing the tour guides’ share.

The industry changed, said Wong, now director of the Hong Kong Tour Guides General Union which has 2,000 members, a third of the city’s total tour guides.

From that point on, tour guides had to fall back on commissions they got from retail sales as their only source of real income. Thus the troubles began. The unfair practices of some cut-rate tour operators caused a backlash that continues to sully the city’s reputation as a tourist mecca.

In March 2010, tour guide Li Hau-chun, well-known as “Ah Zhen”, verbally harassed a tour group for failing to spend enough at a jewelry shop. She shouted at a group of mainland tourists, “It’s okay to be poor at home but not in Hong Kong!” The incident was recorded and uploaded to the internet and a nationwide uproar ensued. Two months later, former national table tennis player Chen Youming died of a heart attack outside a jewelry shop in Hung Hom. Shortly before the fatal attack, Chen had a heated exchange with a tour guide after refusing to buy from the shop.

TIC data shows that in the past eight years, half of the complaints filed by tourists were about tour guides. “The complaints are against the tour guides’ poor service and malpractice, as seen in the rude attitude and coerced shopping,” said TIC’s Executive Director Joseph Tung Yiu-chung.

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