Skipping paper receipts and eventually, airport queues: Start-up simplifies tourist tax refunds

Skipping paper receipts and eventually, airport queues: Start-up simplifies tourist tax refunds

Singapore-based Tourego wants to make the process of claiming for tax refunds as hassle-free as possible for tourists and local retailers.

Tourist tax refund start-up Tourego 1
Homegrown start-up Tourego claims to be the world's first mobile tourist tax refund solution provider. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

SINGAPORE: An all-in-one app that acts as a mobile passport, e-wallet to store tax refund tickets and platform to submit claims is what Singaporean Tan Tie Wee envisions as the “ideal” tax refund experience for all holidaymakers. 

And the first step he took towards this “wild vision” was to quit his job three years ago and start Tourego – the homegrown tax refund start-up operating alongside much bigger players, such as Global Blue, Premier Tax Free and Global Tax Free, in Singapore. 

“The current system still remains quite paper-based,” said the tax practitioner-turned-entrepreneur, citing how visitors to Singapore still refer to paper receipts when keeping track of their Goods and Services Tax (GST) refund claims. 

Launched just three months ago, the Tourego app wants to do away with this pain point for travellers. 

Simply by allowing retailers to scan the QR codes generated via the app in their smartphones, tourists will receive digital tax refund tickets. These e-receipts will be stored in the app and users can scan them at the tax refund kiosks upon reaching Changi Airport. 

“They will not have to worry about losing receipts anymore,” said Mr Tan. 

Apart from travellers, Tourego said it is also lending a helping hand to local retailers. 

At the moment, retail staff have to note down personal details of tourists when they issue tax refund tickets. With the app, this manual process is replaced with a quick scan of QR codes. 

This saves time and manpower, according to Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Sim Ann. 

Mentioning Tourego in her speech during the recent Committee of Supply debates, Ms Sim said such productive technologies allow staff to spend less time on routine or tedious tasks, and more time to provide better customer service. 

Since its roll-out, the mobile app has gotten 150 retailers on board, including department store Robinsons, fashion labels Zara and Banana Republic, as well as local brands such as 1872 Clipper Tea Co and RISIS. However, it declined to reveal user numbers. 

Tourist tax refund start-up Tourego 3
Mr Tan Tie Wee was a senior manager with PwC's indirect tax practice in China before starting Tourego. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

On what inspired him, Mr Tan, 40, said he came up with the idea of Tourego after hearing complaints from his colleagues in China about the hassle of filing for tax refunds overseas. 

“Some said it was language difficulties. Some said they were pressed for time because they were in a tour group. So I suggested an app that could help them with the claims and they said if there was one, they would definitely use it,” said Mr Tan, who spent two years in China as PwC’s senior manager for indirect tax practice. “That’s how it got me started.” 

His time in China also got him “quite immersed and amazed” by the country’s prevalent use of mobile payment apps and QR codes. Eventually in 2015, Mr Tan left the corporate world and dived into entrepreneurship. 

The process of starting up the business, however, took longer than he thought. For one, the start-up needed to go through stringent checks before being given its license by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) last November. 

An IRAS spokesperson said all central refund agencies that participate in the Electronic Tourist Refund Scheme (eTRS) have to meet necessary requirements to ensure that the GST refunds are properly administered, and that their systems are robust. These include a technical certification process and IT audit. 

But the start-up also managed to tap on Government schemes for support. For instance, the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Pro-Enterprise Panel facilitated cooperation with Government agencies to ensure Tourego’s solution complemented existing systems, said Ms Sim in her speech in Parliament. 

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) also featured Tourego on its VisitSingapore website and inbound trade newsletter, as well as displayed the start-up’s brochures at the Singapore Visitor Centre. 

STB said it will ramp up support by featuring the app on its post-arrival guide and destination guide for travel agents later this year.

On why it is doing so, the spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia that STB has always been on the lookout for innovative ideas to enhance visitors’ shopping experience in Singapore. 

“With electronic payment platforms growing increasingly popular in Singapore, STB is pleased to support Tourego’s mobile application as it allows visitors to claim tax refunds in a more seamless and hassle-free manner in Singapore.” 

To be sure, the eTRS system in place right now already seeks to make Singapore’s tourist tax refund system less reliant on paperwork. Since its roll-out in 2011, tourists no longer have to fill in different GST refund forms and queue at different counters to get the claims done. 

Now, visitors can choose to swipe their chosen credit card at the self-help kiosks to retrieve records of their purchases. Alternatively, they can scan the eTRS tickets individually before indicating their preference for the tax refund method. 

Tourist tax refund start-up Tourego 2
Electronic tax refund tickets will be generated and stored in the app. (Photo: Tang See Kit)

Other technology players also seem to have set their sights on this space. China’s Alipay, for one, partnered Global Tax Free last year to allow Chinese tourists to make claims and have their tax refunds deposited directly into their Alipay accounts. This instant tax refund service through the Chinese mobile and online payment platform, was made available in Singapore earlier this year. 

As such, Tourego is working to roll out its other features that would eliminate the need for its users to present their passports at the point of purchase and allow them to skip the queue at the airport. 

“We want everything to be done on the mobile phone,” said Mr Tan. 

“For registration, all you have to do is to scan your passport using our app. At the retail store, flash your QR code and a digital receipt will be generated automatically. 

“Joining the queue at the airport is probably the most painful part of the refund process and we think this can be changed. My full solution will be to move the declaration process on to the app so that there will no need to stand in line at the various counters or in Singapore’s context, queue to scan your passport at a kiosk," he added. 

The start-up founder is also aiming to expand beyond Singapore though the navigation of various tax systems could be a hurdle. 

“We have global ambitions to be a homogeneous global tax refund solution,” Mr Tan told Channel NewsAsia. “It may be challenging but we will take one step at a time and first, we will show that it’s going to work here in Singapore.”

Source: CNA/sk