Three Hong Kong travel agencies have been accused of refusing to refund fees worth more than HK$7 million (US$903,000) collected from at least 24 local schools and kindergartens that were forced to cancel study tours amid global Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The complaints were lodged with education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who at a Wednesday press conference said the travel firms pocketed the fares by ignoring the realities of the pandemic situation and claiming the schools had cancelled the tours unilaterally.

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The lawmaker and some of the education institutions involved have already sought help from the Travel Industry Council and police.

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Ip did not disclose the names of the agencies, but said one alone was responsible for an HK$6.3 million dispute involving 17 schools and 23 study trips. One of the schools, which had to cancel four trips, was still awaiting a HK$3 million refund, he said.

The study tours, with destinations including mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Britain and Spain, were set to begin departing this February.

“Study tours have been common among schools over the past years, while licensed travel agencies are usually believed to be reliable, as they are regulated [by laws],” Ip said.

“But this year, because of the pandemic, when schools asked to cancel these trips due to travel restrictions at their destinations amid the pandemic, the agencies said schools were cancelling unilaterally, and thus their deposits, or even most or all of their fees paid, were being confiscated.”

Ip added that some schools were unsuccessful in their attempts to apply for compensation from insurance agencies because the travel agency was unable to prove it had actually bought the airplane tickets or made hotel bookings.

At least one school had successfully received a refund after repeated negotiations, he noted.

Education lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen raises the study tour refund issue at a press conference. Photo: Jonathan Wong

FDBWA Chow Chin Yau School, however, is among the unlucky majority. The Tuen Mun-based institution paid more than HK$410,000 to one of the travel agencies for a study trip to Japan that was to depart in April and involved more than 30 pupils and teachers.

Principal Shum Yiu-kwong said when the school realised in February the chances of departing were slim, they asked the agency to delay the tour by paying an extra HK$34,000 in administrative fees.

The company also promised to refund 50 per cent of their total fees in case they were unable to depart, he said, but they had yet to see a refund.

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The school also attempted to seek compensation from the insurance company, which earlier this month offered the school a 30 per cent compensation of total fees paid. Shum said the school had not yet accepted.

In a reply to the Post, the Travel Industry Council said they had received more than 30 complaints and enquiries related to study tours being delayed or cancelled amid the pandemic.

Some of the cases had already been settled, while others were still being handled, the council said, adding that as many of these study tours cases were complicated and could involve legal issues, it could take a longer time for them to handle.

The council added that if any of the cases violated existing regulations, they would be dealt with by the council’s compliance committee if there was sufficient evidence.

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