Johannesburg - The Association of Southern African Travel Agents, Asata, has warned against booking through unaccredited agents, after a trip to Dubai soured and a client was forced to approach the media and the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman to secure her refund.
The trip, organised by Lenasia-based Panache International, had been scheduled to take place in Dubai between March 21 and 28, for the Women of Wonder Awards.
The client, Zahida Kara Sulaiman, said she was contacted by the awards organiser, Farzana Mayet, who encouraged her to bring her children along.
Sulaiman paid Panache R102 000 on January 27 and the travel vouchers were issued on March 6. But on March 11, Sulaiman got cold feet because Dubai was on lockdown due to the coronavirus and her son was sick so she asked to cancel.
Mayet and the contracted travel agency, Enchanted Travel, then proposed a postponement, which would have incurred further costs, but the Sulaimans were unavailable for the new dates. Unable to claim from travel insurance, Sulaiman asked for a full refund.
No can do, she was told: Emirates was only issuing vouchers (the airline has subsequently revised its policy) and the hotels were refusing to refund customers.
A bit of sleuthing revealed the Dubai hotels had only received inquiries – nothing was paid to any of the three hotels where the tour group was due to stay. Atlantis, The Palm and Swiss Hotel confirmed this to Independent Media.
No invoice was issued for the R102 000 paid to Panache, nor was there any service agreement between Sulaiman and the organiser.
“I received the invitation and made payment, but no terms and conditions were signed or agreed at the time of payment,” Sulaiman says.
“She (Mayet) refused to send me a receipt, although I requested this several times. I don’t have any agreement with her agency, but I am required to pay charges and commissions after the funds were deposited into Mayet’s account.”
Mayet, though, insists her awards were never cancelled, merely postponed. She says she and her travel agent had tried their best to assist Sulaiman.
“I would like to place on record that this was a non-refundable trip as communicated to Mrs Sulaiman on mail (but we also mentioned that we will go above and beyond the call of duty to assist her best we can to get whatever refunds we can),” Mayet says. “I have a service provider that does the booking and had issued Mrs Sulaiman the confirmation of the hotel bookings. So I don’t understand your falsified allegation that no booking was done.”
She said Sulaiman had cancelled “way before” any travel ban was imposed but “my character does not allow me to be unjust and the person that I am, I went over and above the call of duty as I strongly advocate women empowerment (sic) to ensure that Mrs Sulaiman gets back whatever refunds came through”.
She said she had instructed the agent to proceed with the refunds of the airline tickets and claimed she had received payment for the hotels in April. Responding to a query from the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman (CGSO), she said as soon as she received the funds for the flight tickets in her account, she would pay the hotel and airline ticket money to Sulaiman.
Mayet said she had tried to reach out to Sulaiman but the latter had blocked her, opened a case with the police and defamed her on social media – a claim which is vehemently denied. Mayet denied refusing to refund Sulaiman, saying she was awaiting the refund from Emirates before paying her for the trip.
On Friday, Mayet provided a payment confirmation for R80 316, an underpayment of more than R20 000, as well as PDFs of the visas that had apparently been issued for the family. She did not respond to a further query about the short payment, nor proof of payment for the visas, by deadline.
Asata chief executive Otto de Vries said Sulaiman’s experience highlighted the importance of dealing with accredited agencies because the industry was unregulated. “A travel agent is entrusted to pay the supplier: it’s not their money to do with as they wish. The terms and conditions by which the whole booking was signed guide the agreement and those would have to be agreed upon by both parties. It needs to be fair and equitable: the Ts & Cs cannot be changed after the fact.”
On Thursday, in an Asata webinar dealing with refunds and cancellations, CGSO complaint manager Nicky Stetka said her office was “drowning” under complaints about refunds. Complaints about accredited agents are referred to Asata, but if they involve non-members, they assist consumers.
“The airlines are not even responding to our office. They’re just saying no, they’re not refunding. So we refer non-responsive cases to the National Consumer Commission. Tour companies haven’t been too bad, so they’ve offered refunds of what they were able to recover. That’s reasonable.
Stetka says, as a rule, the CGSO is treating all consumers as “ill” so they are relying on Section 17.5 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), which entitles consumers to a full refund: “No cancellation fee is allowed.”
Elizabeth de Stadler, Asata’s legal counsel, says as intermediaries, agents are not in a position to refund money to customers if they are not being reimbursed themselves, so they should advise customers to rely on their CPA rights when dealing with a non-responsive supplier.
“The legal position is not entirely clear on refunds versus vouchers though. These are unusual circumstances so people must be reasonable.”
On terms and conditions, Stetka adds parties cannot contract out of legislative protection, so they cannot hide behind Ts & Cs.
“If the booking is cancelled as a result of the travel ban, you would not be entitled to charge a cancellation fee. In the ordinary course, you would be able to charge a cancellation fee. But not due to Covid. Whether it’s been in your terms and conditions or not.”
On agents’ fees, De Stadler says agents provide a service and are entitled to be paid for this, “but only if their terms are clear. You can never charge a person for a service if they haven’t agreed to pay it beforehand”.
She says depending on how clear and well-worded the terms and conditions are, agents do not have to refund the service portion because they would have done their job.
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.