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Thursday, December 8, 2016, 00:49

Body to curb abuses in tourism industry proposed

By Luis Liu

HONG KONG - The government has proposed setting up a statutory body to oversee the tourism industry, according to the submission of a draft travel industry bill to the legislature on Wednesday.

The establishment of Travel Industry Authority (TIA) is expected to remedy the lack of government regulation of the city's tourism practices by giving real power to a supervisory body.

Currently, the government has authorized the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong (TIC), formed by industry players, to self-govern the tourism sector.

Instead of fines and license suspensions issued previously, industry players could face criminal prosecutions if the new ordinance is enforced, according to the submission.

"If a case involves suspected breaches of the ordinance, the TIA will pass it to the Department of Justice for considering whether to initiate criminal prosecutions in the court," the submission read.

The TIA will comprise 30 members, 13 from inside the tourism sector and 17 with no relations with the industry. By doing this the government hopes to establish an independent, impartial image, it said.

Shady practices, such as forced shopping or threatening tour members, are banned under the new rules.

According to the proposed law, a travel agent must not force any inbound tour members to enter or stay in any shops, or coerce anyone into shopping, commit any such act, or allow any others to commit any such act.

Travel agents now face a two-year imprisonment under the new rules. A tour guide who violates the rules will be liable to a one-year imprisonment.

Meanwhile, new requirements, including a deposit guarantee of HK$500,000, will be imposed. This is to raise the threshold for running a business in the industry and ensuring that travel agencies are committed to their businesses, explained the government.

The draft legislation, which will replace the existing Travel Agents Ordinance, will be deliberated by lawmakers next Tuesday.

If it goes well, the TIA can be established in three years, the government estimated.

The tourism industry has welcomed the move. It hopes tighter regulations will eliminate malpractices and resume tourists' confidence in traveling to Hong Kong.

TIC Executive Director Joseph Tung Yiu-chung hailed the move. He said it would end the era of having a "toothless tiger" approach to tourism regulation.

Tung said the TIC inspectors had long been questioned over its power to penalize those who violated the regulations. Handing the work to a statuary body helps deter malpractices, Tung believed.

A statuary body will also be more systematic in the settling of disputes, Tung said.

Meanwhile, when the new rules become law, industry players will have clearer guidelines, Tung said.

Tung believed that by eliminating malpractices, Hong Kong could improve its international image. This will ultimately help the industry’s development, he said.

The legislator representing the tourism industry in the Legislative Council, Yiu Si-wing, believed harsher penalties would prevent companies violating the rules.

Previously, some industry players would just close one of their many companies when breaching regulations and continue with the remaining operations, Yiu revealed.

Reports of malpractices, such as tour guides forcing tourists to shop and under-table deals with certain souvenir stores, have long been prevalent in Hong Kong.

In one notorious case last year, a man died after clashing with a tour guide over forced-shopping in a jewelry shop in Hung Hom.

Also on Wednesday, Ocean Park Hong Kong announced it had witnessed a nearly 20-percent slide in the number of visitors in the past fiscal year, leading to a deficit of HK$241.1 million, the attraction’s biggest revenue loss since 1987.

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