Amid concerns around fly-by-night travel operators and travel scams, South African travellers have been urged to do proper research before parting with their money. Lured by amazing deals at affordable prices, many unsuspecting travellers have been victims to bogus operators. In the umrah industry, these concerns are more pressing, as locals are desperate for cheaper umrah packages, given the recent surge in prices in the Saudi Kingdom.
The need for consumer knowledge has been highlighted following a recent case of two Cape Town women, allegedly fleeced by a local travel operator of more than R50 000. The two pair, who had booked a trip for Turkey and Dubai for departure last weekend, had paid their package in full, but a week before the holiday, discovered their airline tickets had been cancelled.
The travel operator, who traded under the company Royal International Tours, did a disappearing act and the women are desperate to locate him to get their money refunded. They subsequently found that the company is using fraudulent logos of several travel associations in its letterhead and is not a registered company. In addition, the company, as stated on its website, claims to be a trusted umrah operator. Since bringing the story to light, the women have opened a case with the police.
Speaking to VOC Breakfast Beat, South African Travel Haj Operators Association (Sathoa) chairperson Adam Jainodien said whether travellers’ book for umrah or any other destination, they need to do their homework.
Within the umrah industry, Sathoa is represented by various travel operators, who are long-standing companies involved in the umrah industry. These companies have full understanding of their operational capabilities and have grown tremendously through investment in human capital and resources. Members of Sathoa are bound by a code of conduct and there are serious consequences for operators who are not compliant or who not deliver on their services.
Jainodien said the public is encouraged to only do business with operators who are members of Sathoa or registered travel bodies such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) or Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA).
“This gives you comfort that these are travel companies that are reputable. You get many ‘pop-up shops’ with beautiful websites and adverts that take travellers on journeys that they are financially unable to deliver on,” he said.
In order for a travel agent to put together all the components of a package tour, this would take extensive communication with the different service providers, initially to check rates and availability and then to send through deposits and secure bookings.
According to Jainodien, when operators launch a travel package, they would “put themselves at risk” to block a certain amount of flights at an airline at a competitive price. Once the flights are arranged, the operators will book accommodation with hotels, usually those whom they have existing relationships with. Once the travel package is launched and they have filled the block for airline tickets, they are ready to execute the overall travel services.
However, in cases where operators cannot fulfil their airline block booking, they have 30 days to cancel their tickets. Some operators can also do custom made packages, where the client can book flights with their own loyalty programme, such as Discovery or Momentum.
Once the visa is issued, the operating company is ultimately responsible for the client’s land arrangements, accommodation, transport arrangements and departure.
But there are many cases of bad business practises, which lands the operator in trouble.
“Some of these operating companies might not have all these things in place and fall foul by using client’s money for other purposes in their business. This is when things can go horribly wrong…”
According to Jainodien, there is no policy that covers travellers against impropriety or fraudulent transactions between the operator and the third party. However, travel clients can take out travel policies for flight curtailment – where flights do not take off. Travel insurance is mostly used to cover the loss of luggage or in the event of a medical emergency.
“The only insurance is for the traveller to do his/her research and book with companies that are accredited with Sathoa, IATA or ASATA. These member companies must provide their financial records on an annual basis, have an office and be registered company based on South African company laws.”
According to ASATA, membership is a vital part of ensuring credibility both within the travel industry and in the eyes of the travel-purchasing consumer. ASATA members are bound by a strict Code of Conduct and Constitution. Over 95% of South Africa’s travel sector belongs to ASATA.
“Rather trust your travel in the hands of an ASATA member and you can be assured of professional service, ethical conduct, trustworthy behaviour and that you are dealing with a market leader,” the organisation states on its website.
Through a strict code of conduct, ASATA members must maintain a high standard of service to consumers. Members are obliged to be honest and accurate when providing information in any form about their services and prices. ASATA members have to make every effort to ensure that the travel arrangements sold to consumers are compatible with the consumer’s requirements. Travel agents who are members of ASATA are urged to put the interests of the consumer first.
More importantly, there is recourse for any client found to be dissatisfied with an operator. ASATA members must cooperate with any inquiry conducted by ASATA, where there is a dispute involving consumers or other ASATA members or partners. ASATA members are compelled to provide all components as stated in their brochure or as stated in their written confirmation. Failing that, the operator will provide alternative services of equal or greater value or provide appropriate compensation.