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Taiwanese travel agencies victims of weak visa reviews: industry

2018/12/26 17:14

Image taken from Pixabay

Taipei, Dec. 26 (CNA) Taiwanese travel agencies have fallen victim to inadequate government reviews of visa applications and poor law enforcement in cases of tourist runaways, industry representatives said Wednesday after 152 Vietnamese tourists went missing upon entering Taiwan.

Ringo Lee (李奇嶽), head of the Travel Agent Association of the ROC, said the government should tighten its tourism code to curb illegal immigration through package tours and come up with effective measures when serious situations occur.

"Local travel agencies are victims themselves in cases like this because they have no authority to control their customers," Lee said, referring to the largest-ever case of tourists deliberately leaving their tours under a special program launched in November 2015.

That program made it easier for citizens of Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, India and Brunei to visit Taiwan, in part through waivers of visa fees for groups of at least five tourists from the six countries, as long as they were organized by Tourism Bureau-designated "quality travel agencies" or part of company-sponsored groups.

That program was then incorporated into the broader New Southbound Policy (NSP) launched by the new Democratic Progressive Party government after it took power in May 2016 and it now covers Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.

After the NSP came into being, travel for citizens of the countries in the program was made even more convenient by expediting review processes and allowing electronic visa applications, while Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines exited the program because their citizens were granted visa-free entry to Taiwan.

The missing Vietnamese tourists -- 23 of whom arrived in Taiwan in one tour group on Dec. 21 and 129 who came in three groups on Dec. 23 -- were traveling on tours organized by Vietnam-based International Holidays Trading Travel Co. and hosted by Taiwanese travel agency ETholiday.

ETholiday spokeswoman Aileen Lai (賴彥伶) said most of the Vietnamese tourists fled after the travel group returned back to the hotel to rest, which made it difficult for the tour guide to keep tabs on their whereabouts.

Once it learned that members of the tour had gone missing, ETholiday reported the incident to the Tourism Bureau and even called the police, but the authorities did not take action because of a lack of evidence of a crime, Lai said.

Not all of the Vietnamese tourists disappeared upon arrival, Lai said, and the tours continued as scheduled from Kaohsiung to Nantou in central Taiwan and New Taipei in northern Taiwan, during which more tourists strayed from their group.

"It is clear that human trafficking rings are involved in this case," said Roget Hsu (許高慶), chairman of the Taiwan International Tourist Aid Rescue Association.

Hsu originally criticized authorities for failing to detect the situation based on the understanding that the missing Vietnamese tourists only bought one-way tickets for their trips. But Hsu later told CNA that after checking with the travel agency in Vietnam, it provided documentation showing that the tickets purchased were round-trip tickets, with members of the tour group scheduled to enter Taiwan on Dec. 23 and leave on Dec. 26.

Tourism Bureau Director-General Chou Yung-hui (周永暉) pledged that the bureau will tighten reviews of visa applications and discuss with the National Immigration Agency (NIA) the possibility of conducting random background checks of individual tourists before the paperwork is transferred to the Foreign Ministry for final approval.

Chou said any punishment of the travel agencies involved will be determined after the bureau investigates the case with the NIA and the Foreign Ministry.

They will also review the special NSP program for Vietnam and other countries, which is scheduled to last until the end of 2019.

Chou stressed, however, that the case of the missing Vietnamese was an isolated one and urged the public "not to judge quality travel agencies and their tours too negatively."

Lai, meanwhile, said her company could sustain big losses because of the incident.

It has yet to receive travel fees of NT$10,000 (US$324) per tourist from International Holidays Trading Travel Co. and could be fined NT$5,000-NT$8,000 per person to send the Vietnamese home, she said.

"This was our first partnership with that Vietnamese travel agency. Very bad luck for us," she said.

ETholiday did not have any reservations about working with International Holidays Trading Travel Co. because it was among the 102 "quality travel agencies" recognized by Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, Lai said.

(By Lee Hsin-Yin)Enditem/ls