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KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 ― The legitimacy of awards handed out to tourism industry players in the region by the group known as the Asia Pacific Travel and Tourism Federation (APTTF) appears to be more dubious than thought.
Amid a growing spotlight on the awards, a local hotel association revealed that APTTF's claim of having official endorsement from tourism ministries in Asean does not hold up.
Malay Mail spoke to several major organisations in the local tourism industry, but found that many have not heard of the APTTF previously until complaints and negative news reports regarding the latter's recent awards ceremony.
A check of APTTF website shows that it still carried advertisements of its now-controversial Asia Pacific Tourism & Travel Awards 2019, with the date and venue stated to be April 11, 2019 at the Palace of the Golden Horses KL.
When contacted, Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) CEO Yap Lip Seng said the association was not invited to the awards ceremony, but found out about the event one day before it was held and was also informed that the tourism minister would be attending.
“At that time we were one of the very first ones whom had raised doubts over APTTF as it was the first time we hear of it. However we did not raise any alarms assuming that it would have been endorsed by MOTAC if the minister is attending,” he told Malay Mail, referring to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.
“After the event, which was attended by many of our members, we were told of irregularities and the fact that the Minister did not show up. From there we did quick checks and could not find any solid data on APTTF and its awards,” he added.
MAH took the extra step of checking with regional counterparts of APTTF's claim of participation from tourism authorities of Asean nations.
“From its website and listing on the award certificate, APTTF features a long list of 'member countries' represented by its Ministries or Tourism Boards.
“Being a member of the Asean Hotel and Restaurant Association, we forwarded the matter to other member countries, and most reverted that their respective Tourism Ministries & Boards did not endorse APTTF,” Yap said.
“From there we alerted MOTAC, Tourism Malaysia, Malaysia Airlines as well as Visa, all of which logos were featured on the award certificates,” he added.
Malay Mail's checks of APTTF's website shows it listed 14 countries under the heading of “Tourism Ministries ― Associate Partners”, with the purported partners mainly of Asean members.
Apart from listing official tourism bodies in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and South Korea, APTTF also listed Singapore and Malaysia but without specifying the official tourism ministry or board of these two countries.
Malay Mail found that the addresses provided for the purported partners in Malaysia and Singapore were the same as the alleged office address of APTTF's own purported Singapore office and ASG Management Group Ltd's office in Brickfields.
APTTF's Facebook page claims that it is a “non-profit organisation”, but states that it is “owned and managed by ASG Management Group” and “registered and operating from Singapore”.
The APTTF website also brazenly displayed the logos of Motac and had in promotional material claimed that Malaysia’s tourism minister would attend the Malaysian edition of the award event.
Earlier this week, Tourism Minister Datuk Mohamaddin Ketapi said his ministry will take action against APTTF for using his name and the Tourism Malaysia logo without authorisation in its promotional activities for the awards event.
He accused APTTF of fraud for falsely portraying his alleged planned attendance when he did not even receive invitations to do so, while Tourism Malaysia reportedly said it has no links with APTTF which it pointed out was not registered with the Registrar of Societies or the Companies Commission of Malaysia.
Local daily The Star this week reported of award recipients allegedly having to buy tables at the event to receive awards from APTTF, as well as disorganisation where some allegedly did not receive their awards as planned or where awards were given out to the wrong recipients.
When asked if any of MAH members complained or were tricked into paying for the awards, Yap said: “We did not receive any official complaints on the awards, but we were informed on members who felt cheated after the event”.
“However, the payment they made was to attend the event which includes conference, meals and administrative arrangements, they did not pay to be given the awards,” he said.
Yap said MAH was not aware if any of its members were planning to take action against APTTF over the awards event, but confirmed it would help if required: “MAH is not a direct party in the matter, but we may assist our members if requested so”.
Unrecognised, unheard, unknown
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents president Datuk Tan Kok Liang told Malay Mail that he did not know about APTTF, saying: “I’ve not heard about them until the news about them came out.”
Malaysian Inbound Tourism Associationsecretary-general Adam Kamal Ahmad Kamil said the association had “never heard of APTTF before this” and that “they’ve never contacted us”.
“There are many such awards around so they might just want to jump on the bandwagon to give out such awards.
“I saw the news about them using the Tourism Malaysia logo without permission, that is wrong. Even for us, when we organise any travel fair and want to use the 'Cuti-cuti Malaysia' phrase, we have to write in to MOTAC to get permission, this is not even a logo,” he pointed out to Malay Mail.
Malaysia Budget Hotel Association president PK Leong said APTTF had never contacted his hotel or the association he leads about their awards.
“I have heard about them giving out some award once before this but did not think much about it,” he told Malay Mail, further disputing their legitimacy as a purported tourism industry organisation.
“In the scheme of things, we are a bigger organisation compared to them, we have been around for more than 20 years and MAH has been around for 30 years.
“I think they are a private company giving out awards, they do not represent any particular body or associations. They are definitely not industry players and they are definitely a business venture giving out awards to those in the industry,” he added.
“It is quite common for some organisations to give awards and those attending had to pay for the dinner, such as the per table or per head fees. That is the norm to pay for the dinner,” he said.
A check of APTTF's website shows the purported organisation as touting itself to be a leading international organisation in tourism initiatives but without revealing when it was formed, also carrying the peculiar description of being “the Asian Tourism Ministry agency” as having the responsibility of promoting “responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism”.
Shaharuddin M. Saaid, executive director of Malaysian Association of Hotel Owners, said the first time the industry body heard about APTTF was weeks ago just after the awards event.
“We have not heard of them. But what we know is they are unrecognised. The hotel and tourism industry have no knowledge of this body,” he said, adding that the tourism ministry did not know of APTTF.
He described APTTF's event as a “fly by night” scheme akin to selling awards to hotels where hotels are told they would receive awards if they pay for tables, saying it does not apply genuine valuation for the awards.
Shaharuddin, whose association has 97 hotel owners with about 200 hotels under them, said MAHO will leave this matter to the Tourism Ministry.
“We already informed the ministry and hotels can decide whether they want to take up action against this body,” he said.
He said he was uncertain if such dubious awards were common in the hospitality industry, saying: “This is the only one we have found out so far. There could be other bodies giving out awards but are unrecognised by the official authorities.”
What can be done?
MAH's Yap said the 900-member-strong association knows “the recognised industry awards with proven track records and we are often invited to either support, participate or promote the awards”.
When asked if dubious awards were common in the hospitality industry, Yap said some awards fall within a gray area.
“There are attempts every now and then but it falls in a gray area of legitimacy being a private initiative most of the time.
“We can gauge its authenticity somewhat through the award process, from nomination to judging and award criteria. Dubious ones usually do not fulfil such processes,” he said.
Yap said MAH does alert its members and partners once dubious practices are made known to the association, but also said the industry body is unable to directly criticise or condemn such awards and their initiators “because essentially these awards are not regulated by law”.
“If it is proven a scam, it will be within our black-list or watch-list for doubtful ones. We will make such information available to our members,” he said.
When asked if there should be a law to regulate awards in the tourism industry, Yap noted the challenges if such measures are taken.
“As for law, it would be very difficult and could be counter-productive to genuine ones too. The coverage of such awards are actually very wide, and will be difficult to have laws to govern or control it,” he said.
Yap instead suggested a guide possibly by the government to assist in evaluating if an award is genuine, saying that this could be a generic guide that applies to any industry as the mechanism would be the same.
“A guideline would be a good start, to identify and ensure that awards are genuinely given by nomination and proper judging process. The guideline could serve as a reference to ministries or agencies in determining the legitimacy of the awards,” he said.