There are periods when the world of travel seems to be tossed into turmoil as worldwide events beyond our control spin into a vortex of media facts and fears.
These past couple of weeks have seen concerns about protests, health and bankruptcy taking over the travel agenda. Hopefully we can create some balance and perspective with today's column. The first question came from the travel-agency community.
QUESTION: Can you please explain that it was not a travel agency but a tour operator that went bankrupt with the closure of Conquest Vacations in Toronto a couple of weeks ago?
ANSWER: The travel-agency community was deservedly upset when a headline, as the company was going bankrupt, suggested that Conquest was a travel agency. The story was accurate, but the headline did create a perception that travel agencies could play a part in the demise of this, or any other tour operator. Phil Houde, Manitoba chair for the Association of Canadian Travel Agents (ACTA) wrote a letter to the editor of the Free Press clarifying the misconception, but many travellers still don't recognize the distinction.
"ACTA travel agencies are a big part of the solution, and not any part of the problem, when situations like this occur," Houde says. In past travel-industry bankruptcies, such as Canada 3000 and Jetsgo, it was the travellers who booked through travel agents who got the best results. Their agents worked to help those affected, despite knowing they would never see compensation for their extra efforts.
By and large, tour operators use travel agencies as their primary distribution system for the packaged vacations they offer. With a suffering economy, particularly in Eastern Canada, there was suddenly an overcapacity in the market. Prices were so low that it seemed obvious no one could be making a profit. But there was no sense that travel agencies could predict which, if any, tour operator would go down.
There is not a travel agent in Manitoba, knowing how much extra work that would come back to them later, who would ever book vacation packages for their clients with a supplier they thought might not survive.
Still, when the worst does occur, Manitobans are placed in a dilemma. Ontario has an excellent passenger-protection plan. Manitoba does not. Instead, the province counts on the fact that most travellers will be reimbursed by their credit-card companies on the basis of non-delivery of service. But corporate and school groups, who usually pay by cheque are completely out of luck under this system. And those Conquest clients who ended up having to pay a second time to get out of their hotels in Mexico, will go through significant frustration before their situation is finally resolved.
While the Ontario body, through ACTA, has offered to help Manitoba set up a similar protection program, this offer so far has not been taken up by the government. Perhaps now is the time.
QUESTION: I was considering booking my wedding in Mexico for next winter. What is your advice?
ANSWER: Details of this swine flu health scare are evolving so quickly that by the time you read this it may have already changed dramatically.
A number of people have already started to switch their weddings from Mexico to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Cuba. I believe it is too soon for such a reaction to the current situation. Once the world health bodies started to issue travel advisories against non-essential travel to that exceptional sun destination, there was an immediate impact on short-term travel to Mexico. And even though we don't know when the advisory will be lifted, tour operators were right to cancel flights until June 1 at least.
In many ways, it already is an international problem and no longer just a Mexican problem, even though that is where the first reported cases of swine flu originated. Many are comparing the current situation to Toronto's SARS epidemic, which, while solved in a reasonably quick time from a health point of view, crippled Toronto's tourism economy for years.
My advice is to wait a few weeks. There is still plenty of time to make a destination decision. This situation could be resolved sooner than we expect. Mexico is by far the top non-stop destination for tour companies who offer travel from Manitoba during the winter season. The reality is that if Mexico is not be in the equation for next season, pricing for all other destinations will go through the roof.
Forward your travel questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Pradinuk is President of Journeys Travel & Leisure SuperCentre and can be heard Sundays at noon on CJOB. Previous columns and tips can be found on www.journeystravel.com or read Ron's travel blog at www.thattravelguy.ca