An Open Letter to First Choice about Sarigerme

Dear First Choice

This has truly been a sad week for the British Travel Industry & British Holidaymakers.  The purpose of this open letter is twofold; firstly to openly address a number of concerns expressed by your customers to us, and secondly, it is written in the hope that by bringing these matters to the fore, that senior executives will bring about the conditions that will restore confidence and the reasons why ordinary working people chose your company.  The time has come to re-build shattered nerves throughout this important industry; it should start with the Travel Consumer!

We know that your company is favoured by many holidaymakers, so many trust your experience, but I regret to report, many appear currently to be quite cross with you.  We have received so many complaints from your customers this past week, I had begun to think that we had become an extension of your customer service centre!

I think therefore that it is only correct to share with you publicly the bulk of our calls and complaints we have received about the Holiday Village in Sarigerme, Turkey.  In highlighting this hotel, I offer my understanding and support to the local Turkish people, whose livelihoods clearly depend on tourism as the source of their income.  In fact, I think that it would be true to say that, most Turkish people, who have a good reputation for hospitality, would be horrified to hear, let alone read of visitors experiences to their country.  I sincerely hope that whatever problems may have existed here, that they are now all behind us!

Regrettably however, this hotel did make the headlines during the last week, and for all the wrong reasons.  Holidaymakers reported poor food quality, poor hygiene practice in and around the bar area, many people being ill, some of whom, particularly children, suffered faecal accidents in the swimming pool.  Whatever the range of the complaints and their validity, one thing is clear; there was a major incident of holiday complaints suffered at this complex.  I suspect that the rights and wrongs will be argued by others in another forum.

That said; I have read that the hotel can accommodate up to 4000 guests, yet your representatives, both in the resort and in the UK claimed that less than 1% suffered with any illnesses.  If that were the case, then that would mean that only 40 guests suffered with illness!  Forgive me for saying so, but we are aware of one list of disgruntled holidaymakers with apparently some 400 names, we are also aware of other lists and continued contact from individual family groups, all complaining of illness – this would suggest that a figure of over 10% were ill.  That’s quite a difference.  As you and your representatives had first-hand knowledge of the events (remember the large meeting in the reception?), how do you reconcile your figures with what we have been told?  I only ask because this is one of the questions being asked by your customers.

Given these difficulties, I was encouraged to hear that your representatives helped to organise ‘stool’ sample testing for holidaymakers affected by illness.  Presumably this was in recognition of the problem, and an attempt to identify the cause of the illnesses.  What was curious however was the fact that holidaymakers were being advised to return between 30 minutes (usually an hour) and 24 hours for the results of their stool samples!  Forgive me, but as I understand it, cultures need a minimum of 48 hours or longer, and most results are delivered in a 4/5 day period.  This is not just my understanding, but also the understanding of others more qualified than me who were on holiday in this complex at the time.  Given the stories circulating on this issue, it might be helpful if you could clarify this point, but also provide everyone with the copies of their tests and the location of their samples – these are worried customers and they are looking for answers?

There are many other issues raised by holidaymakers, not least of which are those raised by those who have yet to depart.  Many are obviously concerned as to whether it is safe to go to this hotel, and many ask us what they should now do.  Now I appreciate that we are not the most popular organisation within the Travel Industry, however, it is important for you to know that whilst we obviously confirm the reports we have received, we also balance those reports by what we know your call centre has been telling intending holidaymakers, that everything has been tested and that the resort is safe.   We suggest to holidaymakers that they should consider all the facts, understand their rights, and ask questions which will help them make an informed decision about their particular situation.

Dare I mention the phrase ‘significant change’?  Of course you will be familiar with that phrase as it is embedded into Regulations 12 & 13 of The Package Travel Regulations.  Now we can all argue this ‘significant change’ point, but I think you will agree, where there has been a major incident of holiday complaints (it doesn’t matter where this is), which is suggestive of hygiene deficiencies, there is potentially a question mark over whether you can be sure that health & safety can be guaranteed for intending guests.  If risk is a factor, then it seems sensible to consider whether any holidaymaker should be transported into that risk destination.  The question should be; would I send my own family into a risk destination?  If ‘risk’ is likely to affect the safe and orderly operation of a contract, then surely the aforementioned rules must apply.  Clearly that would be good customer care, and create an opportunity to receive repeat business!

This is a question of communication (a word that I believe was used often by my predecessor in her discussions with the Travel Industry).  Holidaymakers are telling us that they are sending you desperate e mails, but not receiving any answers!  Holidaymakers are also telling us that they do not have the confidence in this particular product, who can blame them?  Would you be confident given the nature of the information that is flowing?  This lack of confidence is further exacerbated by the fact that your call centre states that your health & safety teams have been in, and have given the complex a clean bill of health.  When intending holidaymakers ask for written confirmation or a copy of your report, this is refused.  Why?

As if that were not enough, holidaymakers are now reporting to us that their travel insurer may invalidate their insurance if they travel to this hotel; they now appear to have no travel insurance, they ask, how can we travel?  Here is one such comment:

“I am due to fly out to the First Choice Holiday Village in Sarigerme on Mon day 15th Sept 08. First Choice Holidays will not allow me to change the booking and if I cancel they tell me I will loose my money. However, they will not confirm in writing that there is no Salmonella present. I'm now being told that my travel insurance could be invalid if I know of a health risk before I go! What are my rights? Can they send me out there knowing of a problem and if there is no problem are they not required to confirm this to me in writing?” (E.11.09)

I note from your own terms and conditions that you state:

“You cannot travel with us unless you have travel insurance. You will find details of our policy in the Insurance section. Our insurance cover includes the cost of cancellation by you and the cost of assistance, including return to the UK, if you suffer an accident or illness. You should have insurance cover at least equal to our policy, as the cost of medical expenses overseas can be very high. We cannot help you pay these costs if you don’t have adequate insurance. If we cancel your holiday, we will refund your insurance premium and the cost of your holiday. If you have insurance cover with another company and you cancel your holiday, we will not refund your premiums. Some hazardous activities may require additional coverage, you should check with your insurance provider”.  (Sun Holidays departing before 30 April 2009).

If an incident creates conditions whereby a holidaymaker has his travel insurance invalidated, hasn’t the contract been frustrated?  Shouldn’t they get their money back and all parties put back to their original positions?

As you know, I provided significant input into the recent Travel Insurance debate, where concern was expressed that holidaymakers failed to declare impediments, thus failing to give the opportunity for the Insurer to adequately assess their risk before the holidaymaker departs.  Now that holidaymakers are making their Insurers aware, they are now being faced with the prospect of travelling without insurance, surely you would not want that (how does that fit in the Guidance to The Code of Conduct (ABTA) on this issue?), or being told that they cannot make changes to their booking, except if it’s a name change within 14 days of departure (Terms & Conditions – Sun Holidays departing before 30 April 2009).

All of this points to a crisis of confidence.  Openness and common sense must be the solution to the concerns being expressed at this time.

As I have stated above, wouldn’t it be better if someone senior within your company were to take charge of this situation, and ensure that the high standards enjoyed by many of your holidaymakers are in operation, and further, to make sure that intending holidaymakers have their confidence restored?

Let me remind you of your own mission goal:

“You look forward to your holiday all year, planning and saving for it before it finally arrives. We know that you place a lot of trust in the company you choose to handle your holiday booking. We take that trust very seriously”. (Taken from the First Choice Online Brochure – Why book with us).

Come on First Choice, in this week of gloom, dazzle us and show your customers why you are their First Choice!

Kind Regards,

Frank Brehany
Senior Consumer Advocate
HolidayTravelWatch – 13/9/08

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