Departures: Matter of life and death

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The Independent Travel
CAN A tour operator be held responsible if a tourist accidentally strays into a dangerous area and is murdered? The killing of a German tourist near Miami two weeks ago and a British tourist in New Orleans this week raises important questions for tour operators.

Under the EC Directive on Package Travel, which came into force in Britain at the beginning of the year, organisers of inclusive holidays have a legal duty to ensure the safety of their travellers. How far this duty of care extends is not clear.

Historically, British tour operators have been quick to pass the buck for problems encountered abroad. An accident involving a transfer bus from the airport will be laid at the door of a coach company; an injury caused by a glass door will be held to be the responsibility of the hotel company. British holidaymakers keen to pursue their grievances had no alternative to the complex - and expensive - business of pursuing a case in a foreign court. Now, thanks to the EC Directive, the tour operator assumes responsibility for all elements of the holiday and travellers can sue a British tour operator in Britain.

Operators of activity holidays such as white-water rafting trips seemed to face the worst risks. Without adequate insurance - and the London insurance market is reluctant to expose itself to even modest risks - this sort of specialist holiday company had an uncertain future. But now it may not be such companies that face huge legal claims for loss of life, but those offering ordinary packages. So far this year, the tourists most at risk have been visitors to India, Egypt and - most dangerous of all - the United States.

If an operator fails to warn a client not to venture into a dangerous suburb of a US city, for example, and that client is murdered through this ignorance, can that operator be considered negligent under the EC Directive? This will probably have to be tested in the courts. Meanwhile, we can expect holiday companies to take more initiative in advising customers. Those that fail to issue clients with maps of no-go areas in New Orleans, Miami and other dangerous US cities can be deemed to be morally negligent if not (yet) legally reckless.

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