Singapore whacks wily travel agents

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SINGAPORE, 9 November 2017:  Changes to Singapore’s already strict laws governing travel agencies were passed by parliament, earlier this week.

They are designed to rid the trade of rogue agents and protect travel consumers.

Amendments to the Travel Agents Act and Regulations were ratified, Tuesday, and will be effective from January 2018.

The major change is an increase in the penalty for operating an unlicensed travel agency from SGD10,000 to SGD25,000.

Travel agencies that have been fined, or closed, will also find it more difficult to reopen under a different name.

Commenting on the changes senior minister of state for trade and industry, Sim Ann, said that when making licensing decisions, the Singapore Tourism Board would consider additional factors including whether the individuals involved with the travel agency, such as company directors, were suitable to hold the licence.

STB will be empowered to publish information relating to the suspension and revocation of licensees. Licensees facing suspension or revocation will be required to disclose this fact to the public, in order to help consumers make more informed decisions.

Singapore is the only country in ASEAN that identifies travel agents in good standing and makes public its announcements on suspension and revocation.

This is in stark contrast to Thailand where the list of travel agencies, published by the Department of Tourism, is out-dated with no reference to their current business status.

There are around 1,200 licensed travel agents in Singapore. Thailand has around double the agencies registered, but gaining reliable intelligence on their financial standing and reliability is time consuming and costly in translation fees especially for international  investors .

Quoting the Member of Parliament for Mountbatten, who is also the president of the Consumers Association of Singapore, the  news channel, Today Online, reported 792 complaints had been filed against travel agencies resulting in the closure of 15 agencies over the last five years.

Earlier this year, Misa Travel shut down, stranding hundreds of travellers, who had bought holiday packages to Hong Kong and Thailand.

Lim told Today Online there should be frequent checks of the accounts of travel agencies that would allow STB to recognise in advance if an agency was heading for a financial fall.

In a move to ease the burden for companies that sell sightseeing tours just in Singapore using local transport and including walking, Segway and bicycle tours they will no longer need to have a licence.

If they offer coach tours or bumboat tours, but no accommodation, they may apply for a niche licence, requiring a paid-up capital of SGD50,000, down from the previous SGD100,000.

There are still concerns over who regulates online travel entities and how consumers may recover their prepayments if online entities cease operations.

The prevailing view is that it would depend on whether the entity falls within the jurisdiction of Singapore’s legislation and whether they have a physical presence in Singapore where they supply travel products.

“If (they do have) physical presence in Singapore (and) contracts with consumers for the supply of a travel product, or sells or arranges tours in Singapore, the entity will require a travel agent licence,” the senior minister told Today Online.