Credit: Pixabay t_watanabe

UNWTO warns that the reputation of the travel industry has been damaged and sets out a new Code to protect tourists

PASSENGERS trapped on cruise ships, tourists stuck inside hotel rooms and families sleeping at airports. These were the images of holidaymakers that made headlines around the world when they were caught up at the start of the coronavirus outbreak last year. When they finally made it home, many then faced a battle for a refund. Travellers realised how far down the value-chain they were for airlines, tour operators and hotels.

According to the World Travel Organisation these experiences have seriously impacted trust and damaged the reputation of travel companies. Their recent global tourism survey revealed that the three main factors that affect a return to travel are worldwide lockdowns, containment of the virus (both due to the ongoing Covid-19 emergency) and the third, is low confidence of consumers.

A fresh start for tourism

In an unprecedented move the UNWTO has stepped in to create an International Code for the Protection of Tourists in an attempt to restore confidence. It aims to spell out the responsibilities of the travel companies, governments and travellers when things go wrong. It hopes to bring clarity to those caught in emergency situations and to give tourists greater legal protection. Already, the committee working on the Code is looking at recommendations that include providing tourists with real-time information, and asking that governments and travel companies collaborate across borders to allow travellers to return home safety. It has the support of 100 countries but won’t be ready for approval until the UNWTO General Assembly meets in October in Marrakech, Morocco —and even then its adoption will be voluntary.

Alicia Gómez, legal counsel at UNWTO, said that last year when the coronavirus started to spread tourists were treated differently depending on their nationality and the country in which they were stranded. Some were given access to accommodation and public health services, others weren’t. Not all customers got their money back for cancelled holidays, some were forced to accept vouchers while others got nothing.

Think twice before booking

While the roll-out of the vaccine has raised hopes of summer holidays, airlines and tour operators are encouraging us to book trips. The UK government has urged caution. Transport secretary Grant Shapps has advised not to book summer breaks or even staycations. Thousands who have already paid for holidays are worried and have started to ask for their money back. The travel industry is furious at the minister for creating doubt when they desperately need the money to keep trading and to make up for the huge losses of last year. Travel companies say that if trips are cancelled customers will get their money back.

Yet Covid-19 mutations and outbreaks remain a real threat as does being stranded overseas and struggling to get home if there is a local lockdown. Because there is no global rule book, each airline and tour operator has its own consumer policies and countries have their own laws. For international travel in 2021, tourists must also be prepared for testing pre-departure and again possibly to return home, quarantining might be required and also there is talk of vaccination passports.

These and other big questions remain unanswered: who assists when tourists are stranded on holiday? Who pays the cost? If a passenger is denied boarding a flight, who pays for the ticket home? If a trip is cancelled, will vouchers or refunds be issued?

Travel risk remains the same in 2021

Ms Gómez said there are still too many obstacles for holidaymakers. She said: “Many of us – and I include myself here – are not afraid to travel again, at least not because of the virus but we are afraid of the situations we expose ourselves to when we book a trip. For instance, if I travel abroad and a new outbreak of the virus starts in the country that I’m visiting and then as a result I’m stranded in that country, who will assist me? Will I have to pay the costs of being stranded: the accommodation, the repatriation out of my pocket. Do I have to pay for the new ticket to go back home? Do I have to pay for the accommodation or will the airline provide for that in case I can demonstrate later on that I didn’t have covid?

“There seems to be a lot of questions that a traveller needs to carefully assess that didn’t exist before covid-19 and the fact that the answers are so different from one airline to another and one travel company to another and one country to another is not helping at all. There seems to be too many obstacles.

“As far as we know these risks will continue to be present for sometime so it is necessary to address these concerns if we wish to gain tourists back.”

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