Agent licensing takes new twist

7 September 2000

The changing environment of the travel industry and its new players are forcing travel agent associations in the region to relook its licensing regulations.

In Singapore, the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) has been in discussions with the Singapore Tourism Board about whether agent licences should be expanded to cover other areas of services such as operating cyber cafes.

“Look at all the dot.coms today,” said Elsie Chua, director and general manager of inbound operator Associated Tours. “People can just get online and book and go. But these people are not licensed. It’s about time the industry really had a rethink about the way business is being done.”

Estella Ang, general manager of American Lloyd Travel Services in Singapore, said it was pointless to try and get the government to regulate Internet travel companies.

“With companies, there’s nothing the government can do,” she said. “You can set up a company anywhere as long as you pay up and go through the right channels. But for those that can issue tickets, you’re still under licensing.

Whoever issues a ticket has to be licensed. I think the airlines are still working only with licensed agents. If the airlines want to take a big risk, that’s out of our control.”

The NATAS agents said they did not have a deadline for when they had to present their suggestions to the STB and Lee Liat Cheng, president of NATAS, said it could take time. “It’s very complex issue, he said. “There are still a lot of people who do travel without a licence besides dot.coms. Hotels selling packages don’t have a travel agent’s license. There’s a lot to talk about.”

In Australia, the issue of licensing agencies has reached government levels. Mike Hatton, chief executive of the Australian Federation of Travel Agents, said licensing of travel agents was an issue currently subject to a government enquiry.

“The simple fact of the matter is that, in Australia, you must be licensed as a travel agent, whether you’re a bricks and mortar or an Internet agency.”

Hatton said that all agencies were required to become members of the Travel Compensation Fund. “For those who try to get around the regulations, there are ways and means of bringing them into line via the Fair Trading ministries in each of the states,” he added.

The Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents (HATA) is recognising the urgency of new agency licensing in the changing marketplace as there are currently no rules in place.

Richard Willis, vice chairman of the HATA said the licensing of Internet travel agencies was “a burning issue”.

“No one has looked at it here, there are no regulations but it is an issue we are going to have to look at as more and more online agencies start up in Asia.

“We need to have safeguards, we need protection for all the stakeholders – airlines, agents and the rest of the industry.”

Further afield in the UK, a new e-commerce hallmark, Trust UK, endorsed by the UK government was set up to establish a code of practice for the relatively new area of online trading.

The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA), one of only three organisations to have risen to this private sector regulatory challenge so far, has been working hard to ensure that its members’ websites are up to the standards laid out by the watchdog. It has set a date of November 1, for all members to meet the standards laid out by TrustUK.

The organisation hopes to provide protection to the online consumer and an e-hallmark will be provided to all ABTA members, once standards have been met. ABTA’s self-regulatory code of conduct is highly regarded and has been held up as a model by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

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