When Tan Tie Wee, 40, heard complaints from his colleagues in China about the hassle of filing for tax refunds overseas, he was motivated to start up something that can help simplify this process.
“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,” Tan told Channel NewsAsia.
He was working as PwC’s senior manager for indirect tax practice then, and he had spent two years working in China.
Tan was impressed by the country’s prevalent use of mobile payment apps and QR codes and figured that he could integrate it into his own venture.
He ended up quitting his job in 2015 so he could work on realising this ambition amidst other big players such as Global Blue, Premier Tax Free, and Global Tax Free in Singapore.
He then worked on developing Tourego (short for ‘tourist refund on the go’), an all-in-one app that acts as a mobile passport and e-wallet that stores tax refund tickets.
Launched just three months ago, the mobile app allows retailers to simply scan the QR codes which in turn generates digital tax refund tickets for tourists, replacing the current paper-based system.
This means that retail staff no longer need to take down the particulars of tourists when they issue tax refund tickets, which helps to effectively save time and manpower.
Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Sim Ann mentioned Tourego in her speech during the recent Committee of Supply debate, and said that such productive technologies allow staff to spend less time on routine or tedious tasks, and more time to provide better customer service.
On the other hand, tourists can also easily submit claims by scanning these e-receipts at the tax refund kiosks upon reaching Changi Airport.
With the digitisation of such process, tourists no longer need to worry about losing receipts when keeping track of their Goods and Services Tax (GST) refund claims.
Challenges On Starting Up
The traction of the mobile app has been enjoying positive traction so far.
Although exact user numbers weren’t disclosed, Tourego said that it has gotten 150 retailers – such as Robinsons, Zara, 1872 Clipper Tea Co, and RISIS – onboard since its launch.
But starting up the business wasn’t easy.
The process was much more tedious than he expected.
For starters, the startup needed to go through stringent checks before being given its license by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) last November.
According to IRAS, 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.
“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,” said STB.
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.
Competing Against Other Big Players
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 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. 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.”
Featured Image Credit: welscua.blogspot.sg