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Tue 1 May 2007 09:42 AM

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Industry calls for consumer protection

The travel trade requests a regulatory organization to protect customers and industry members.

Several key members of the UAE travel trade have called for the creation of a formal regulative body for travel agents and tour operators.

The organisation would not only protect the interests of members and provide services such as representation and training, but also devise a code of conduct for agents and operators with a view to protecting consumers.

Calls for a self-regulated association have been made by several leading operators and agents across the UAE who feel the time is right to implement such measures as the travel market continues to grow rapidly and mature.

They include industry heavyweight, Iain Andrew, senior vice president, Dnata Agencies and president of the recently re-formed Dubai Travel & Tour Agents Group (DTTAG).

Andrew, who is joined on the DTTAG committee by representatives of some of Dubai's leading travel agencies including Airlink, Al Arabi Travel, Mohebi Aviation, Al Naboodah Travel and Orient Travel, would like to establish a bonding scheme whereby consumers booking with ‘bonded' members would be protected in the event of the agency failing.

"Dubai is opening up and we need to work together to introduce some form of regulation," he said.

"There have been three high profile agency failures recently where the consumer has lost out. There should be an advantage to booking with an agent that offers protection."

Nick Wood, general manager, Etihad Holidays said the initiative should not stop with Dubai and called for a "pan-UAE bonding scheme", to "protect holidaymakers in the event of any travel agency failures".

"We believe it is important consumers are financially protected when booking holidays through travel agents, whether in the UAE or abroad. In this respect we advocate the implementation of UAE schemes in common with the practice employed in many countries around the world," he added.

Wood was referring to organisations such as the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) and the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

In the case of ABTA, a self-regulated body, members must follow strict criteria and pay a fee in order to be bonded. ABTA bonded agencies are entitled to display the ABTA sign in their shop windows and on all collateral, indicating to consumers that they are a ‘safe' agency to book with and that they follow an ethical code of conduct.

If the agency goes bankrupt, ABTA will take care of the members' customers, giving them a refund for their booking if they are yet to travel or in the event of clients being stranded in another country when the agency goes bust, ABTA takes care of them.

The advantages of joining ABTA are numerous; legal advice, training, and problem resolving. ABTA even lobbies the government and EU on issues affecting its members.

Andrew said if DTTAG gained the support of travel agents across the emirate, the group would start looking at examples of best practice such as ABTA.

"Although the UAE market is different to that in the UK, we should still get together to implement training, information sharing and collective negotiation," he said.

He noted that some smaller businesses might not possess the funds to pay a large bond or fee upfront.

"We would therefore look at charging a small fee per booking that would be paid into one fund," he said.

Nick Sheppard, manager Dnata Holidays and product development stressed the need to protect consumer rights, particularly when several parties including tour operators, DMCs and travel agents were involved.

"Companies need to be made accountable and grey areas need to be avoided," he said. "With such rapid growth of outbound travel, at some point, something is going to go wrong. It makes sense to implement preventative measures ."

ATN

contacted both Dubai's Department of Travel and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) and Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) to ask for their opinion on consumer protection, but neither responded.

However, John Felix, vice president, Emirates Holidays said he believed the DTCM was "starting to look at some elements of consumer protection" from a travel agent perspective.

However, the Abu Dhabi-headquartered Ministry of Economy recently established the Higher Committee of Consumer Protection (HCCP), which met for the first time in February and approved a proposal to form a consumer protection team and to set up Disputes Settlement Committees (DSC) to mediate between consumers and suppliers. How far this initiative penetrates the travel industry is unknown.

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