On­line travel plat­forms need more reg­u­la­tion

Global Times - Weekend - - OPINION - By Cui Bowen The au­thor is a post­grad­u­ate stu­dent of trans­la­tion at Bei­jing Lan­guage and Cul­ture Uni­ver­sity. opin­ion@ glob­al­times.com.cn

Re­cently, Ctrip.com, China’s largest on­line travel agency (OTA), has been thrust into the spot­light for al­legedly de­fraud­ing con­sumers with so-called de­fault fees.

A post, which was widely cir­cu­lated on WeChat dur­ing this year’s Na­tional Day hol­i­day, claimed that fees re­lated to ex­tra ser­vice pack­ages added to on­line ticket book­ings earn Ctrip about 10 bil­lion yuan ($1.5 bil­lion) per year. Such fees are au­to­mat­i­cally added to air and rail book­ings dur­ing the firm’s check­out process.

This re­minds me of an aw­ful ticket-book­ing ex­pe­ri­ence on its app my sis­ter and I had dur­ing the Spring Fes­ti­val hol­i­days this year. We bought two tick­ets for a Bei­jing­bound bul­let train from Wuyuan, East China’s Jiangxi Prov­ince, in a hurry, as few tick­ets on the app were avail­able. How­ever, we found we had been charged trans­porta­tion in­sur­ance fees cost­ing dozens of yuan.

Some friends also com­plained of be­ing mis­led into pay­ing for ser­vices they found un­nec­es­sary like ho­tel coupons, car rentals or VIP lounges at air­ports, be­cause it is hard to find the but­ton to can­cel an item in a pack­age tour.

How­ever, the OTA gi­ant dis­missed the claims as ground­less.

The thriv­ing OTA ser­vice is a re­sult of the ex­plo­sive growth of China’s tourism sec­tor. Steady eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, ris­ing per capita in­come and buy­ing power have fu­eled sus­tained in­crease in tourism con­sump­tion abil­i­ties and travel de­mand, adding fresh vi­tal­ity to China’s sound eco­nomic growth mo­men­tum.

This has con­trib­uted to the coun­try’s boom­ing tourism in­dus­try that gave rise to the pop­u­lar­ity of on­line travel agency ser­vices. OTA plat­forms, such as Ctrip.com and Tu­niu. com, have pi­o­neered China’s on­line tourist ser­vice sec­tor. By pro­vid­ing ser­vices like trans­porta­tion tick­ets, ho­tel reser­va­tions and pack­age tours, the two NAS­DAQ-listed OTA en­ter­prises have made great strides in China’s on­line travel mar­ket. Ctrip wit­nessed net rev­enue of 6.1 bil­lion yuan in the first quar­ter of 2017, an in­crease of 46 per­cent year-on-year. Tu­niu saw its trans­ac­tion vol­ume dou­ble in the sec­ond quar­ter of this year, with net profit soar­ing by about 56 per­cent year-on-year.

De­spite the suc­cess, some ob­sta­cles re­main for China’s OTA com­pa­nies. In ad­di­tion to the book­ing trap men­tioned prior, some OTA plat­forms are in­volved in other mal­prac­tices, such as fail­ure to dis­play prices clearly or have prices prop­erly tagged. Be­sides those, users are forced to restart the book­ing process in some cases, which is not user-friendly. Some OTA plat­forms lack trans­parency in terms of in­for­ma­tion dis­clo­sure and find it hard to man­age some con­tracted travel agen­cies where un­reg­u­lated con­tract sign­ing, forced shop­ping and higher com­mis­sions ex­ist, which may pose a threat to trav­el­ers’ per­sonal safety and spoil the travel ex­pe­ri­ence.

Against this back­drop, tourism au­thor­i­ties should is­sue or amend re­lated laws and reg­u­la­tions to man­age and su­per­vise OTA plat­forms, as well as beef up ef­forts to es­tab­lish an in­dus­trial stan­dard for on­line ven­dors, in­clud­ing ways of dis­play­ing the cost of each item at each step of pur­chase, high­light­ing rec­om­mended prod­ucts and re­fund­ing ticket fees and ho­tels. OTA providers should be re­spon­si­ble for eval­u­at­ing and reg­u­lat­ing the con­tracted agents and en­sure all vi­o­la­tions of con­sumer rights are ad­dressed. OTA reg­u­la­tory bod­ies and op­er­a­tors should guar­an­tee users’ rights to be in­formed and to en­joy free­dom to com­pare and se­lect what they want.

Although China’s tourist mar­ket is de­vel­op­ing fast, com­plaints and poor ser­vice in the OTA sec­tor abound. This mer­its close at­ten­tion and should be han­dled in a holis­tic fash­ion, in a bid to bol­ster the be­nign de­vel­op­ment of China’s tourism in­dus­try.

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