A civil servant from the western Chinese municipality of Chongqing recently joined a tour group to Hong Kong.
After being whirled through a few of the city’s attractions, she and some 50 other members of the group were escorted to a jewelry store inside a rundown factory building in Hung Hom.
They were not allowed to leave for their hotel unless each of them buys no less than HK$1,500 worth of goods, mostly rings and other jewelry items with fat markups, and when they refused, their guide and coach driver locked the door of the shop and started scolding them.
“I will never ever come to Hong Kong again for the rest of my life,” said the agitated tourist from Chongqing.
What happened to her group is certainly not the worst example of the “forced shopping” scheme being perpetrated by some unscrupulous travel agencies.
The practice continues despite widespread condemnation of similar incidents over the years like a local guide who hurled abuses at her tour group members after they had done little shopping, a mainland tourist who died of a heart attack after quarrelling with his guide and another one who was allegedly beaten to death after he refused to shop.
The kind of treatment that mainland visitors get in the city contrasts starkly and unfavorably with the courtesy offered by rival tourist destinations in the region.
A mainland traveler said he was surprised by the warm welcome he received at Singapore’s Changi Airport, where an immigration officer gave him a big smile and wished him a pleasant stay after he cleared the process.
But when he arrived at the Hong Kong airport, an airport employee rudely told him in Cantonese to queue up in another hall after seeing his Chinese passport and a poker-faced man at the immigration counter, working like a robot, checked and tossed him back his passport.
A girl from Taiwan who has been in Hong Kong for several years also shared with me how she feels about the city’s caterers.
“If you order chicken wings with rice at a cha chaan teng, more often than not you will get chicken and rice and nothing more, but in Taiwan, you will always be served with far more ingredients, even small plates of complementary veggie salad or assorted desserts,” she said.
She enjoys having dim sum with friends but she can’t understand why she is usually charged for dishes that the expressionless waiters forget to serve.
Once she was also served charred food at Tsui Wah, a restaurant chain popular among tourists, and when she protested, the manager didn’t bother with an apology.
“Hong Kong’s quality of service for tourists is falling sharply. You can’t expect to get here the kind of sincerity and care that are typical in Taiwan and Japan,” she laments.
Hong Kong used to take pride in its hospitable image. There was a time when courtesy and helpfulness were second nature to most Hongkongers, especially in dealing with visitors, and this added to the city’s allure.
Visitors flocked here to shop, dine and unwind, and they left with a lasting and positive impression of the city, thanks to its urbane residents.
We miss the good old days when Hong Kong’s caterers, bartenders and other service providers were all affable.
Lee Kuan Yew was particularly fond of Hong Kong’s complaisant Shanghainese tailors. “I was measured in the morning, fitted in the afternoon and the suit was delivered that night … It made a deep impression on me. Singapore tailors do not work at that speed with such top quality,” he recalled in a memoir.
Now, alas, the perception of many overseas and mainland tourists have obviously changed. Customers are now piqued rather than pampered.
Sales clerks here are perhaps among the world’s worst when it comes to greeting and smiling at customers. They got a score of 48, bringing Hong Kong two rungs down to hit the bottom, in the latest customer service survey conducted in 37 nations by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association.
A 2012 survey by a French tourism consulting agency put Hong Kong in the second to the last spot on its ranking of prestigious commercial precincts in 30 cities worldwide. Respondents said they found passersby in the city were not friendly enough and did not seek to help tourists.
We then hear the familiar explanation: the swarms of visitors who entered Hong Kong in previous years, especially those from north of the border, had for long exceeded the city’s optimal capacity for tourist experience.
But, is it the tourists’ fault to choose Hong Kong for their holidays?
And, don’t make restaurant waiters and shop assistants a scapegoat. When they have to work 10 hours or even longer a day with stagnant pay, don’t expect them to give you a sincerely affectionate smile.
Blame the greed of Hong Kong’s retail and catering business owners, who thought the days of burgeoning sales and easy money would go on forever.
When they could rake it in, few of them spared a thought on how to maintain service quality, let alone improve it, until the market slumped.
During the boom years, some restaurant and retail chains chose not to recruit more staff for extra profit, and naturally, service deteriorated and customer experience turned worse.
The government should have its share of the blame, too.
Little progress has been made by the authorities to address the chronic disgrace of forced shopping that has been tarring Hong Kong’s reputation for more than a decade; officials, in particular the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Gregory So Kam-leung, continues to play deaf and blind and buries his head in the sand, aside from spouting platitudes.
The city’s tourism industry is also plagued with other woes, like inadequate regulation, lack of new attractions and the unchecked growth of unlicensed travel agencies and guesthouses.
Leung Chun-ying’s administration once promised to set up a Travel Industry Authority, yet there is still no timetable for that.
Some lawmakers have prodded the government to form a dedicated policy agency, i.e., a tourism bureau, to take charge of all tourism affairs including policy making and regulation, but as always, the call falls on deaf ears.
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