Sunday, June 24, 2007

$100 To Walk On Bondi Beach

In the early 1990s, I lived in Sydney's King Cross, where I'd regularly see tour buses come straight from the airport and deposit Japanese tourists at their hotels. From that moment on, they were not allowed to leave the eyesight of the tour operators. The tourists drank only at bars chosen by the tour company, the same went for restaurants, who kicked back money for all the international patronage shuttled their way, and the tourists were charged three or four times the standard admission price to get into places like Featherdale Wildlife Park so they could pat a koala bear. Of course, once they were inside the park, the Japanese tourists were often told there was an additional "patting fee".

None of them understood English, so how were they to know they were getting scammed?

I only know all this because I used to drink in a bar in the hotel where many of these well-scammed Japanese tourists used to stay, and I'd overhear tour operators laughing about how much they had fleeced from their patrons that day. Sometimes it was hundreds of dollars. Often it was more than $1000 from a tour group of 20 or 30 Japanese.

I lived in tourist-heavy Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, in the late 1990s. At the beautiful lookout from where you could see an expanse of valleys and the rocky outcrop known as 'The Three Sisters' I once heard an English speaking bus driver tell his interpreter, to tell Japanese tourists, that there was an additional "viewing fee" of $20 each to just go and take a look at the scenic view from the free lookout.

It used to be the Japanese who got mugged like this. Now it's the Chinese tourists getting fleeced. The only thing that's changed is how much more brazen the tour operators have become.

Some Chinese tourists are being charged $100 just to talk a walk along the very-free Bondi Beach :

The situation is so bad that tourist industry officials fear Australia could be damaged as a brand and the massive economic benefits of the boom in travel from China could disappear.

Scams uncovered in Sydney include:

* Charging tourists $100 to walk on Bondi Beach or to have their photograph taken at the Opera House;

* Locking tourists in shops and confiscating passports until they spend big on overpriced goods;

* Unfulfilled promises of luxury central business district accommodation;

* Travellers crammed into minibuses and denied free time for their own shopping and sightseeing.

According to Choice consumer group spokeswoman Indira Nadoo, the Chinese are the perfect victims for such scams :

"...they are not used to international travel and can be quite naive, and many of them have little or no English, so if someone tells them that a sign on the beach says it costs $100 to walk on it, then they will believe them.

"Culturally, also, the Chinese are reluctant to create a fuss and complain so they will go along with what they are being told.

"We are already receiving thousands of complaints every year from Chinese tourists who are unhappy and we think that is the tip of the iceberg.

"We estimate that only about 10 per cent of those who are unhappy actually make a complaint, so in reality, tens of thousands of tourists are being ripped off."

China is Australia's fastest-growing inbound tourism market and annual numbers have soared by 280percent to more than 300,000 in the past seven years, making it the fifth biggest in terms of visitors and economic benefit. By 2015, almost 1million Chinese visitors are expected to visit Australia each year.

Charging vulnerable tourists to walk on a beach is sickening enough. But the following is downright disgusting :

Some are bussed directly from the airport to suburban warehouses which they are told are duty-free shops. "They are told they can't shop in normal shops in Sydney because Australians don't like the Chinese..." Ms Naidoo said.

If the Chinese tourist market is worth so many millions to Australia, and such scamming is likely to impact significantly on future tourism revenue from China, we clearly need to have people at the airports, or at least some Chinese-language signage, to warn them to be wary.

Or at least to tell them they don't have to pay $100 to take a walk along Bondi Beach.