Do the rules on package holidays offer adequate protection?

Mark MacKenzie reports

The recent deaths of two British children in a Corfu hotel room, and the charging of six hotel officials and a Thomas Cook employee by Greek prosecutors last Friday, brings to light, once again, the issue of hotel safety.

Ensuring accommodation overseas is properly maintained is something that has tended to prompt action only in the aftermath of tragedy. But in recent years the industry has worked hard to improve its preventative measures to keep holidaymakers safe.

European destinations account for around 80 per cent of package holidays taken by Britons, according to the Office for National Statistics, and yet as far as hotel safety is concerned codes of practice from country to country can vary significantly. So what assurances do consumers have?

"Health and safety is an issue very much on the British agenda, but that hasn't always been the case in other parts of Europe," says Andrew Cooper, a lawyer and director general of the Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), the industry body whose members account for around 70 per cent of the UK's package holiday market. In an attempt to rectify the problem, in 1992 the European Union introduced the Package Travel Directive, a piece of legislation designed to ensure hotels meet basic standards in their provision of health and hygiene services. Covering everything from clean bathrooms to clear fire escapes and secure hotel balconies it led, in turn, to the FTO issuing its Preferred Code of Practice, a set of checks and balances recognised today as some of the most stringent in the world.

"In the event of something going wrong," says Mr Cooper, "British operators are liable under British law. One problem we have is that the standards by which a hotel is judged are those of the country in which it is based."

Before the start of each season, Britain's major tour operators will carry out safety audits of their properties as a matter of routine. Despite this, problems remain on the ground.

"The issue is often one of implementation," explains Mark Harrington, managing director of Check Safety First, an independent company that advises the hotel industry on health and safety issues. "In Spain, for example, the regions are fairly autonomous and the implementation of laws can vary. If you think about how many apartments and properties exist [in popular destinations] it's quite a challenge to keep tabs on all of them all of the time."

It's a situation that could be about to get worse. The concept of "dynamic packaging", the separate selling of flights and accommodation, has boomed in recent years thanks in no small part to the internet. Earlier this month, a Court of Appeal ruling gave the major tour operators the go-ahead to dispense with the traditional package holiday and sell holidays dynamically. Critics of the decision fear that it will enable operators to shift liability to service providers - airlines and hotels - many of which will no longer fall under traditional bonding schemes, such as those operated by the Abta, the Association of British Travel Agents, or Atol - Air Travel Organisers' Licensing.

"Allowing operators to unbundle their packages and sell the component parts individually means they are no longer obliged to provide financial protection if incidents do occur," explains Sue Ockwell of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito).

"If something happens, you're faced with suing the hotelier through their [local] courts." Ms Ockwell is concerned that when consumers buy online, any saving might represent a false economy. "It doesn't occur to many people that where they're staying might never have been inspected, even for something as simple as the beds being missing from the room."

Ms Ockwell argues that "effectively, liability is being shifted to the consumer", a concern shared by Mr Cooper: "FTO members have spent a lot of time and money improving hotel safety, and there are now a lot of vendors securing [rooms] without necessarily making the same level of checks. That must expose those buying these programmes to some risk."

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