Local police will follow up on allegations that mainland Chinese tour agents are operating in Hong Kong illegally, the city’s acting leader said on Tuesday, amid concerns over a sudden influx of visitors to the quiet town of Tung Chung via a newly opened mega bridge.
Authorities in Guangdong province also have “immense concerns” over the issue, according to Hong Kong’s Tourism Commission.
Speaking for the first time as acting chief executive, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah said she had noted the police reports on the matter and promised that officers would look into the issue.
She added that the government was communicating with mainland authorities on the matter.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is currently in Shanghai.
The commission said it had reported the suspected violation of laws and regulations by tour group operations to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Guangdong Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism.
The Guangdong department had immense concerns and promulgated advice on stepping up market regulation, urging travel agents in the province to strictly comply with the laws and regulations in Hong Kong and Macau, it said.
The commission earlier said the Travel Agents Registry would work with Hong Kong police and the Immigration Department to follow up on whether anyone had breached local laws when bringing travellers into the city.
The illegal tour agents were believed to have contributed to travel chaos in Tung Chung, the residential area closest to the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge’s local checkpoint, which was swamped by tourists from across the border.
On Sunday, residents raised an outcry after a record number of people – more than 100,000 – passed through the Hong Kong port for the 55km mega bridge, with many of them pouring into Tung Chung to shop, eat and sightsee.
There were complaints of crowded stores, long bus queues, noise and litter. Some localists groups warned the next day that they would take action to “reclaim” the district if the problem was not resolved.
Hong Kong Tourism Association executive director Timothy Chui Ting-pong estimated that 20,000 people had been brought to the city by mainland tour groups without registration in the city, and half of the travellers had visited Tung Chung.
The appearance of these “special tour groups” to the town was partly because of the lack of slots for coaches picking up passengers at the local port facility, Chui said. There were only eight boarding slots, he said, and local transport officials required operators to provide a vehicle licence number three days in advance to book one.
The difficulty with getting a slot for tour buses meant many tourists ended up taking public transport instead, such as the bus to Tung Chung.
“Every problem has its own cause and result. The result is people going to take the B6 bus to Tung Chung. The reason is because the bus arrangement was not very ideal,” Chui said on a radio show on Tuesday.
“Right now, when the mainland travel agencies pass the tour groups to us, we also take them to take the B6 bus, even though those are registered tour agents. It is very hard for me for arrange a coach for them,” he added.
Chui said there should be a better system for coaches picking up tour groups, adding that local travel agencies had declined many requests from their mainland counterparts because of these restrictions.
He said more public transport should also be provided for travellers so they could go directly to Tsim Sha Tsui and other districts, thereby easing the traffic pressure in Tung Chung.
“I don’t believe travellers love to shop in Tung Chung. When they come to Hong Kong to buy things, of course they go to Mong Kok and Habour City,” he said, referring to a popular shopping centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.
A police spokesman said the force on Tuesday had received referrals of cases in which unlicensed travel agents were said to have done business in Hong Kong. Investigations by officers from the New Territories South Regional Headquarters were underway.
The Post understood that representatives from the Security Bureau, the police, the immigration department and the travel industry met on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the matter.
A police insider said the force would determine if the travel agents in question had violated the Travel Agents Ordinance.
While another government source told the Post that the Immigration Department would also examine the related travel regulations and ordinance to see if any law was breached.
“If the travel escort also acted as a tour guide in Hong Kong, he or she could contravene the condition of stay by engaging in unlawful employment,” the insider said. “But we could not … say what acts are illegal and what are not. We have to collect evidence and study case by case. We need to look into what roles the travel escort played in the city, for example, if the escort brought the group to touristic spots.”
Under the Immigration Ordinance, a visitor shall not take any employment, whether paid or unpaid. Breaching the condition of stay would risk imprisonment for a maximum of two years and a fine of HK$50,000.
There are about 1,500 registered tour agent companies in Hong Kong, of which about 50 are actively operating, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei and Christy Leung