Shoppers’ Paradise?

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Hong Kong has long promoted itself as a shoppers’ paradise, but that title is a mix of reality and hype. The city has malls galore, no sales tax and many bargains to be found, but it’s also easy to get ripped off. Tourists from mainland China, who make up the largest number of visitors, have been learning that lesson recently. Last week Chinese state television ran an expose about mainland visitors who purchased jewelry in Hong Kong but later discovered they were getting significantly less bling for their buck. One bought a necklace that was purportedly platinum, but it turned out to be gold. Another paid $2,000 for a watch that was later said to be fake.

The news has worried retailers and the head of Hong Kong’s tourism board, who has proposed getting tougher with shops caught selling fakes. Tourism is important to Hong Kong’s economy, though it is a much smaller piece of the total GDP than trade or financial services. China’s May “Golden Week” holiday is fast approaching, and the fear is that visitor numbers could suffer because of the reports of fakes in Hong Kong. As people here have noted, mainlanders don’t need to get on a plane if they want to buy counterfeit goods–China is awash in them.

Part of the problem in Hong Kong is “zero-fee” tours. Some travel companies offer discounted trips, then drag tour groups through retail outlets that give commissions on the goods the tourists purchase. Last fall, one such tour in Hong Kong was abandoned by a guide who felt they weren’t spending enough. That was widely publicized as an example of how bad things have gotten. But considering what’s happened to other mainland visitors here, they probably came out ahead.

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