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Tourism vs COVID-19

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:

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:

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:

The article above is for information purposes only. It is not a (binding) legal advice. For a thorough understanding of the subjects covered and prior acting on any issue discussed we kindly recommend Readers consult Ilieva, Voutcheva & Co. Law Firm attorneys at law.