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Thursday, February 4, 2016, 08:50

Slump in tours from mainland rattles industry

By KAHON CHAN in Hong Kong

Incoming tour groups from the mainland are set to fall by at least half in the forthcoming Spring Festival. The Travel Industry Council (TIC) has blamed the drop on a campaign against the council, but travel agencies said it was mostly because Hong Kong was losing its appeal.

A coalition of travel agents, tour guides and retailers since late December have mounted a campaign to challenge the authority of the self-regulatory TIC — in particular new rules to discipline operators of mainland group tours.

The High Court is set to hear arguments from dissident council members. A travel agent asked the court to ease the council’s restrictions on employment contracts with tour guides by declaring them to be against the city’s anti-trust and company laws.

The writ also sought to overturn a TIC requirement that group tours could only be taken to registered shops offering refunds 180 days after purchase. The agent also argued that this contravened anti-trust laws.

The feud came amid a dramatic slump in inbound group tourists. TIC Executive Director Joseph Tung Yiu-chung said the city had received only 120 to 130 groups, on average, arriving from the mainland each day in January. This is down from about 380 groups each day a year ago.

The industry is anticipating a similar slump for the Spring Festival period. Wong Ka-ngai, chairman of the Tour Guides General Union, told China Daily he has not been assigned a single tour next week. By contrast, he received four tours in eight days during last year’s Spring Festival.

These developments have not surprised anyone. Wong noted that fellow guides had decided to spend the holidays in their hometowns on the mainland instead. An industry insider, who did not want to be named, said retail shops serving group tours were asking staff to take unpaid leave for a week during the festival.

Tung feared the industry would lose no less than half of the tours year-on-year. Wong was more pessimistic — predicting this year’s group of visitors from the mainland would shrink by 80 percent.

The TIC executive singled out the campaign as the main cause of the slump. He said media reports on these issues had also reduced Hong Kong’s appeal — although he admitted they saw no rise in reports of irregularities in connection to the one-month-long industrial action.

But Hong Kong Inbound Tour Operators Association Chairman Ricky Tse Kam-ting disagreed with Tung. He said the slump was mostly because the government had not done enough to promote the city at a time when competing destinations were offering mainland visitors liberal visa policies.

Tourists were not really greatly concerned by local events, Tse argued. Tourists had flocked back to the city quickly after the unlawful street blockades in 2014, he recalled. Nevertheless, Tse urged different parties in the TIC crisis to discuss their concerns for the sake of harmony.
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