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ON THE ROAD TO HONG KONG, BEWARE OF PRICE GOUGERS.

Byline: Edwin McDowell The New York Times

Hong Kong will revert to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, but airlines that fly there, as well as U.S. hotel chains with properties there, say their planes and hotels are already rapidly filling up for the weeks just before and just after the change of sovereignty.

And at least one owner of a travel agency is concerned that the occasion may also be turning into an invitation to greed.

Several years ago, Chuck Caramelli, the owner of Lakeside Travel in Burbank, booked 60 rooms for the governmental changeover period at the 723-room Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, a hotel where he had often booked individuals and groups.

But after filling 30 of the rooms with a group from the Claremont Institute, a Southern California research organization, dissatisfaction with the terms of the contract led him to relinquish the other 30.

``I can understand why the $275 per room per night is about double what I've paid in the past,'' he said, ``but we also had to give a nonrefundable deposit of $275 on each room, and all rooms have to be paid in full by December - something that's unheard of in my 20 years in the travel business.''

In addition, any welcome dinner or cocktail party has to be paid for in advance, he said, and the contract further stipulates that everyone in the group is required to eat - or at least pay for - a buffet breakfast each day at the hotel, which will add another $25 or so a day to the bill. (The Claremont group will be in Hong Kong about a week, departing for home July 3.)

As for the airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways is requiring a 40 percent nonrefundable deposit of the $1,175 fare for each member of Caramelli's group by January - something else he said he had never experienced before.

``We ordinarily require a deposit from groups, especially during the peak travel season,'' said Scott Mowrer, a Cathay Pacific marketing and sales manager in El Segundo. ``But if you're asking if we've ever required a 40 percent deposit before, I think I would have to say no. But we expect the transition to be a big event and we're trying to balance demand with inventory.''

Mowrer added that Cathay Pacific is a profitable carrier that ``doesn't just need these two weeks to make a profit.'' The airline had been controlled for 48 years by Swire Pacific, a British company, until China's Communist leaders pressed Swire last April to sell a big stake to Chinese interests at bargain prices.

Caramelli is quick to absolve Hyatt Hotels and Resorts of any blame, noting that Hyatt International, a separate division, manages the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, which has Asian owners. Hyatt International said that while the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong is now about 60 percent booked, the 572-room Grand Hyatt Hong Kong is sold out for the week just before and during the handover.

Sharon Barlow, the spokeswoman for Hyatt International, added that ``a lot of conventions and meetings'' were booked for the company's Hong Kong properties well beyond July, including many by Americans.

United Airlines, part of UAL Corp., said that while June and July are usually busy times for flights to and from Hong Kong, many of its flights for June and July 1997 appear likely to be completely filled.

Joe Hopkins, a United spokesman, said the carrier did not require nonrefundable deposits but did require that passengers booking promotional fares pay in full within two weeks of making their reservation. While such fares are nonrefundable, the travel dates can be changed for a $50 fee.

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Photo: Hong Kong comes under Chinese rule July 1, and already hotels and airlines are filling up.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 17, 1996
Words:629
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