Following the declaration of a coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) and as a precautionary measure, many countries have imposed anti-epidemic measures that directly or indirectly affected various tourism services.
The organized travel packages sold by tour operators are amongst the services that are affected most seriously by the anti-epidemic measures. The immediate ones are the closed national borders, cancelled flights and compulsory quarantine for those back from abroad. This led to many cancelled tour packages.
For this type of tourist service there are special rules in Bulgaria and EU. It aims to protect the rights of both travelers and tour operators.
Especially regarding the current situation, the Ministry of Tourism, together with the Consumer Protection Commission, have given instructions in connection with contracts for packages travels, the implementation of which is impossible in the conditions of emergency due to the spread of COVID-19 in Bulgaria and worldwide. The guidelines are also based on the clarifications of Commission’s Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers of 19 March 2020 on the implementation of the Package Travel Directive and COVID 19.
Tour operator has obligation to refund the amounts paid by tourists under terminated contracts
The Tourism Act explicitly stipulates that the traveler has the right to terminate the contract for the tourist service without paying a cancellation fee, if before the start of the implementation of the tourist package:
- the tour operator is forced to change substantially any of the main features of the package services;
- the tour operator cannot meet any of the specific requirements of the passengers it has accepted;
- the tour operator suggested increasing the price of the package by more than 8%;
- Unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances have occurred, or occurring at or near the destination, which significantly affect the implementation of the package or the transport of passengers to the destination;
- the number of participants for the package is less than the minimum number specified in the contract, and the tour operator has informed the traveler of the termination of the contract within the period specified in the contract;
- the tour operator is prevented from executing the contract due to Unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances and has informed the traveler of the termination of the contract without undue delay before the start of the execution of the package travel.
Under these conditions, the tour operator is obliged to reimburse the amounts paid by the tourist until then. The tour operator will not owe any other compensation to the traveler.
Which exactly are unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances?
Unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances means a situation beyond the control of the party who invokes such a situation and the consequences of which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken. Significant risks to human health, such as the outbreak of a serious disease like the COVID-19 at the travel destination or its immediate vicinity usually qualify as such unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances.
The assessment whether those circumstances significantly affect the performance of the package must be made on a case-by-case basis.
An official travel warning of national authorities is an important indicator that the package travel contract can be cancelled due to unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances impacting the performance of the trip. This also applies where public authorities prohibit certain travels or ban the movement of persons in a manner that excludes, de facto, the package travel contract to be performed.
Example: If you have booked a city trip in form of a package to a city to which access is restricted or where public life is subject to significant limitations (e.g. closure of tourist attractions or museums), this should give you the right to cancel your trip.
Example: If you or an accompanying family member have a medical condition for which exposure to the COVID-19 is particularly dangerous, you should have the right to cancel your package travel contract if the risk of contamination with COVID-19 at the travel destination or its immediate vicinity is declared high by the competent authorities when such increased risk significantly affects the performance of the package for the traveller(s). Such case may also be covered by your travel insurance.
When can tourists expect to receive their money back?
The contracts may stipulate a term for reimbursement upon termination, in any case not later than 14 days after the termination of the contract for the package.
According to the State of Emergency Measures and Actions Act, the terms that expire during a state of emergency are extended by 1 month from the end of the state of emergency. This means that if the reimbursement deadline expires on March 25, the tour will have 1 month after the end of the emergency to recover the amounts.
The rules on the terms apply from 13 March.
Recommendations to tour operators are:
- inform travelers in a clear and understandable way about the changes they offer;
- when you reach an agreement with the traveler for the proposed change, you may sign an additional agreement, which describe all the amended clauses and justify the reasons that led to the changes in the contract, as well as the impact on the price of the package.
Alternatives to money reimbursement
In case the traveler does not accept the proposed changes and terminates the contract for the package, as a tour operator you can:
- Offer a replacement travel package of the same or higher quality, if available, by informing the traveler of its cost. If the traveler accepts the travel package as a replacement, the tour operator will not owe the refund of the sums paid under the terminated contract as it will deduct them against the due payments under the new contract;
- If it is not possible to offer a substitute travel package, including due to the WHO declared pandemic and the completion of measures to deal with COVID-19 in different countries at different times, you may offer to issue a Voucher (Information of the Package Travel Directive in connection with the COVID-19) for the amount paid by travelers for domestic travel, inbound or outbound tourism. It is a mandatory condition that the voucher be explicitly accepted by the traveler instead of refunding the amounts under the terminated contract for the travel package, which is certified by his signature. The tour operator should provide for the right of the traveler to be able to claim a full refund if he or she has not used the voucher. The tour operator guarantees the liquidity of the voucher.