After conducting several checks, the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has established that the practical implementation of the voucher schemes for package tours must be improved. In some cases, consumer rights are at risk. ACM has reminded two large Dutch tour operators, TUI and Corendon, of the rules that they must comply with, and urged them to improve their communication vis-à-vis consumers about their rights, particularly about the consumers’ right to refunds, which consumers continue to have even after accepting vouchers. This is a problem that occurs at a broader scale in the travel industry. ACM enforces compliance with consumer protection rules among businesses selling package deals to consumers.
Edwin van Houten, Director of ACM’s Consumer Department, explains: “By accepting vouchers, consumers explicitly do their tour operators a favor by postponing refunds. However, forbearance is no acquittance. It is important that consumers with vouchers know where they stand, and that their rights will be respected, especially now that the travel industry is starting up again. Having information that is reliable and correct is crucial for consumer confidence. We take action against tour operators that do not sufficiently respect consumer rights".
ACM reviews implementation of voucher schemes
Since the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, ACM has received a large number of questions and complaints about vouchers in the travel industry through consumer information portal ACM ConsuWijzer. Over the past few weeks, ACM has reviewed the voucher schemes, and has concluded that their practical implementation suffers from several shortcomings. In most cases, consumer rights are at risk. ACM has reviewed two large tour operators about which many indications had been submitted to ACM ConsuWijzer, which are TUI and Corendon, and has pointed out the following shortcomings to them:
- At all times, consumers retain the right to refunds, and consumers must be clearly informed about this statutory right.
- If consumers spend part of the voucher’s value on a new trip, they will not lose the unused value. The unused value must either be refunded or re-issued as a voucher, if so requested by the consumer.
- If a consumer accepts a voucher and does not take advantage of it before the expiration date of the voucher, the tour operator that has issued the voucher will be required to refund the voucher’s full value or the residual value automatically. Consumers should not have to ask for this themselves. The value must be refunded no later than at the end of the coverage period mandated by SGR, one of the travel guarantee funds in the Netherlands, which is one year after the voucher’s date of issuance.
- Consumers complained about a backlog of vouchers that still had to be issued. This was not the case with Corendon. As for TUI, the backlog has now been cleared.
The two companies have improved their communication and practical implementation, and they have adjusted their general terms and conditions, particularly with regard to the consumers’ right to refunds, which they continue to have even after accepting vouchers. It is imperative that the voucher scheme is correctly implemented by all tour operators in order for the scheme to enjoy broad support. They will also have to make sure that consumers are well-informed. ACM will continue to keep a close watch on these voucher schemes over the next couple of months, for example by monitoring the indications submitted to ACM ConsuWijzer.
Voucher schemes for package deals
At the initiative of the Dutch Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (ANVR), which is the trade association of the Dutch travel industry, the so-called ‘corona voucher scheme’ was created. Consumers who have booked and paid for package deals but are not able to travel because of the current circumstances, are issued vouchers by tour operators, with their values matching the trips’ costs. Under the warranty scheme of SGR, these vouchers are covered against a tour operator’s bankruptcy for one year starting from the date of issuance. This means that consumers continue to have the right to refunds, but the refund itself can be delayed. The basic principle of the scheme was to strike a balance between the rights of consumers and the survival of tour operators. ACM has shown to sympathize with the voucher initiative for package deals, as long as they comply with the basic principles as drawn up by ACM.