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19 Dec, 2005

Chinese Outbound Hit by Scams, Growing Pains

China’s outbound travel is booming but industry officials are still struggling to cope with some of its negative operational and administrative side-effects, an outbound travel seminar in Beijing was told last week.

Yu Chang Jiang, Director, Beijing Municipal Bureau of Tourism, indicated that the country still considered Thailand to be the origin of one its primary headaches, the zero-cost tours.

This “negative-profit competition” has led to serious problems that harm the interest of customers, he said. “Recently, this kind of competition has spread from the market of Thailand to the market of Australia and Europe.”

Inspite of that and other problems like Chinese tourists getting stuck in Thailand due to the tsunami, he said, Thailand was still popular with Chinese travellers.

In the high-season Golden Week travel period last October, China International Travel Service organised a group of 7,000 incentive award winners to Thailand, a six-day, five-night package “which became the biggest overseas group in (China’s) overseas travel history.”

Mr Yu said Chinese officials were keen to bring order to the Beijing overseas travel market and help the market develop healthily. He said there were 69 countries to which Chinese could travel under the country’s “Approved Destination Status” (ADS) scheme.

The country was using a combination of reward, punishment and awareness measures to eliminate the zero-cost tour problems, he said.

Publications such as “Transparent Overseas Travel” were designed to make consumers aware of the purchasing options. At the same time, the authorities were also keeping track of complaints and rewarding agencies that conformed to the regulations.

“Currently, Beijing overseas travel market is in the period of conformity and transformation, and the vertical dividing work system of overseas travel market is forming,” he said. “To improve operating and managing capacity of travel agencies by (emphasising) brand strategy has been the only way to enhance the enterprises’ competition ability.”

Although all advertising of “Thailand Tour Zero-pay” had been banned, Mr Yu admitted that such tours have not been totally eliminated.

Tour operators were still quoting prices lower than the cost and then charging travellers “in some extra items to fill the margin” such as “extra payment, unlimited shopping time, and reducing the whole journey….” He said some agencies also forced tourists to sign up for optional tours and took them to see porn shows, for which more ‘extra payments’ are levied.

Authorities are also aware of other illegal activities like agencies conducting “operation out of its qualification, transferring specific licenses to other unqualified agencies, and (misleading) advertisements.” Excessive competition had also led to aggressive pricing and price wars.

He said many agencies were not professionally managed and had to rely on outside private contractors, especially when applying visas on behalf of other people.

The relative inexperience of the Chinese outbound travellers also made them easy prey, Mr Yu said.

“Consumers’ actions and mentality are not mature. Usually, travellers focus on the price of products.. and prefer those products with lower prices. So in this case, they may not sign the contract with agencies, may not (get) correct information from the advertisement and may not demand the invoices.”

Agencies just take advantage of “this kind of immature mentality.”

Many actions were being taken “to effectively standardise the order of Beijing overseas travel market.” These include special training programme for legal officers and senior managements of travel agencies.

“We also examine the price and balance of travel cost frequently which ensures that travel agencies list all the details of the charges. All travel agencies which advertise zero-cost tours have been identified and publicly announced in travel agencies internal credit system.”

Authorities are also working to reduce the agencies’ reliance on external private contractors.

“In order to stop non-transparent operations, we offered a model text of ‘Beijing overseas travel service contract’ to standardise travel agencies’ operations and maximise consumer protection. This contract is regularly updated and amended and has helped millions of travellers.”

As far as service quality is concerned, “we encourage customers to lodge complaints against the low-quality service travel agencies. At the same time, authorities regular publish list of accredited and licensed travel agencies and the eligible destination countries which gives the public enough information they need to make a good decision.”

Mr Yu said there are good prospects for development of China’s overseas travel thanks to continued growth in the Chinese economy and the gradual realisation of people’s desire to become better-off.

He called on overseas travel agencies to set up and develop their own brands strongly as indicators of a company that offers reliable products and services.

“We shall inspect and punish each negative case without any appeasement,” he pledged. “It is a long way to standardise the operational actions of travel agencies and to change the current operation mode of travel agencies. Both legislation and self-discipline need time to be realised.”

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