China Tourist

No free lunch

Hong Kong’s ‘zero-fee’ tours back in the spotlight

hong kong skyline

In spite of their reputation amongst Hongkongers, most Chinese tourists aren’t profligate spenders. The bulk are very conscious of what they buy on their trips and increasingly aware of their rights as consumers.

So much so, in fact, that Chinese tourists have been calling emergency hotlines to make complaints about their treatment – not just in Hong Kong, but at home too.

In a video that was widely forwarded last week, Beijing Television reported on how these calls were increasing police workloads. In one case a tourist called 110 (the equivalent of 999 in the UK, or 911 in the US) to complain about the “unscrupulous behaviour” of a duck restaurant in Beijing. The man’s problem: the tourist thought his Peking duck should be served in a single piece rather than sliced up into crispy skins.

“It is important for tourists to have a basic understanding on the different local cultures in order to avoid unnecessary troubles,” Beijing Business Today reminded.

Hong Kong’s tourism authorities may well have similar concerns. The territory was once reputed to be a shopping paradise for Chinese visitors. But complaints about cut-price package tours (known locally as the “zero-fee group tours”) are deepening the woes of the city’s flagging tourism industry.

The latest case came after the death of a 54 year-old mainland tourist in Hong Kong last week, less than 24 hours after a row outside a jewellery shop. Reportedly, the altercation began when the man refused to buy as enthusiastically as his tour agents wished. The quarrel that followed turned into a fight and the South China Morning Post says that a postmortem suggests the visitor may have died of a heart attack.

Two men were later arrested, but the incident stoked an outcry from Chinese internet users about the high-pressure tactics used by some of the zero-fee tours to compel mainlanders to spend in the shops.

“If you don’t buy enough in the shopping paradise [of Hong Kong], they will send you to heaven,” one cynic sniped.

“It is not only an embarrassment for the city but more importantly, it will add insult to injury for Hong Kong’s already dismal tourism sector,” Global Times agreed, explaining that tourists have been turning their back on Hong Kong because of many of its citizen’s anti-China sentiment (see WiC272).

Nor is it the first such death. In 2010 a former national table tennis player collapsed and died of a heart attack after a fierce quarrel with the guide on his shopping tour. In the same year the Chinese authorities issued advice warning tourists of the ‘forced shopping’ imposed by tour guides in the city.

To be fair, it is not entirely Hong Kong’s fault. The root of the problem, the China Daily notes, are the no-expense trips in which tourists are choosing not to pay for the basic costs of transport and accommodation. The quid-pro-quo is that they have to visit pre-arranged retailers, from which the travel agencies receive shopping commissions.

The Beijing News reports that zero-fee packages have been marketed heavily in northeastern China, where there is little understanding of what is involved. “There are even ‘negative-fee tours’, in which local guides pay travel agencies to ‘buy’ tourists, who are then taken on even more aggressive shopping schedules,” the newspaper notes.

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