Tarnished golden years

By Cao Siqi Source:Global Times Published: 2015-6-10 20:18:01

Elderly travelers frequently preyed on by budget travel agencies

Senior citizens take photos in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: CFP

"I will never buy low price tour services ... I probably will not go traveling anymore," 58-year-old Li Lin (pseudonym) from Shanghai told the Global Times on Monday, in a depressed mood. 

Over the last week, Li has been immersed in grief over losing her best friend in a recent shipwreck, with the death toll rising to 434 with another 8 still missing.

The four-story cruise ship Eastern Star, which departed from Nanjing in Jiangsu Province and was bound for Chongqing, sank in 15-meter deep waters after being caught in a tornado at around 9:28 pm on June 1 in a section of the Yangtze River in Jianli county, Hubei Province.

It carried 456 people on board, mostly tourists from Shanghai and Jiangsu aged between 50 and 80, for an 11-day trip. Only 14 people, including the captain and the chief engineer, were found alive.

Li's friend, who was over 60 years old, was one of the victims. No one expected he would end his life that way. Li said that she had considered going on the trip, but changed her mind because her daughter took her to Japan on a vacation instead. She said that she feels lucky to escape, and thinks about her close call often.

Another travel-related tragedy occurred May 16, when a bus carrying 46 people fell into a ravine 30 meters deep near a forest park in Chunhua county, Shaanxi Province. Twenty-five people died instantly and ten passed away at a hospital. Passengers on the bus were mostly elderly people on a two-day tour.

Such fatal accidents have drawn public attention to sight-seeing tours for senior citizens that have become popular in recent years, with experts expressing concern over problems with low-price services such as safety issues, hidden fees and customers' difficulties in defending their rights when conflicts arise.

High consumption pressure

Retired people are a major market for travel agencies, because they have time and money. This demographic is targeted with low-price packages during low seasons.

Li recounted that many travel agents come to Shanghai's parks to promote their products. Attracted by the low prices, she took these packages a few times with her friends, but not all of them met her expectations.

She recalled a 7-day trip from Shanghai to Hong Kong with her friends in their 50s at the price of 1,000 yuan ($161). The travel agency said that the price included train tickets, accommodation and tickets to scenic spots, and promised not to force them to purchase souvenirs.

However, "during the trip, some salespersons kept promoting their goods like jade, silverware and health care products," said Li, adding that they felt huge pressure, because the tour guide would either blame them for not buying anything, or plead with them to buy something.

Li said that they lived in crude hotels, ate poor food and quickly left after taking pictures in front of the gate of scenic spots, adding that she had bought 20,000 yuan of souvenirs while some had spent over 100,000 yuan.

"When I came home, I felt tricked. However, since what is done is done, I did not take further actions."

Liu Simin, deputy secretary-general of the Beijing Tourism Society, said that "with the aging of population and the growth of people's living standard, more and more elderly people are going traveling, making it quite trendy."

However, most of them are still very sensitive about price, and are drawn to inexpensive trips. Some are not savvy enough to see through empty promises. They also hesitate to defend their rights, forming a breeding ground for irregular service, said Liu.

Liu told the Global Times that a low price does not necessarily mean safety problems, but has a higher risk.

A woman surnamed Sun told the Oriental Morning Post that she stopped her parents from booking the Eastern Star's tour after learning that a 13-day package was only about 1,200 yuan. "I was afraid that my parents would be cheated during the trip. My mother was angry with me," said Sun.

Low profits

A staff member from Shanghai-based Datong travel agency told news website thepaper.cn that large-scale travel agencies do not provide special routes for the elderly. These packages were previously offered, but not in the past few years.

A staff member from a Yunnan-based travel agency told the Global Times that their tours for elderly people are now closed, and will restart in September. Its travel itinerary shows that a six-day trip in Yunnan costs 950 yuan, and tourists are required to stay in a store for a period of time.

The worker said the price was rock-bottom because many elderly people have limited means.

Most travel agencies provide low-price tours for the elderly, but such services contain potential safety risks, said a staff member at the China CYTS Tours Holding Company. "If an elderly tourist is injured on the trip and did not buy insurance, he might get into a dispute with the agency."

"The travel agency will buy insurance for tourists but we also suggest they buy separate accident insurance. However, most tourists will not buy it," a staff member at a Hangzhou-based travel agency told the Hangzhou Daily on Thursday.

No personal dignity

A recent report released by the Gerontological Society of Shanghai and the East China University of Science and Technology in November 2014, which polled 2,341 elderly respondents, said that nearly 30 percent claimed that the tours did not treat them with respect.

The survey also said that elderly tourists were cheated. Some agencies refused to sign contracts with customers, or provided unclear rights and obligations. Some even abandoned them halfway through a trip. 

Wang Yanyong, a tourism expert from the Beijing Jiaotong University, said that a set of special services should be provided to the group including route designs, medical equipment and accommodation. 

"The tourism association should be endowed with rights to request all the travel agencies to observe rules, and shut down those who continue offering irregular low-price services."

"To clean up the market, we promise to provide services with strong safety measures for the elderly, such as a routine blood pressure tests and a comfortable journey," said Ge Lei, marketing general manager of China CYTS Tours. He suggested they buy personal insurance and pay more attention to the overall travel experience instead of only looking at the price.

Posted in: Society

blog comments powered by Disqus