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As adventuresome tourists desire to see more exotic and often dangerous locales, the liability exposures of European-based tour operators are increasing.
Under a European Union directive, companies organizing package tours now have greater responsibility for the welfare of their clients, including liability for the actions of tour service suppliers. As a result, tour operators are seeing some bizarre claims from travelers.
For a growing number of tourists, backpacking in the Himalayas isn't enough. More travelers want to take snapshots of bullets flying in a local civil war, such as in India's Kashmir region or central Africa.
The directive, enacted throughout the European Union, puts a heavy burden on travel organizers (BI, Aug. 9, 1993).
"We are responsible for all our suppliers, ground agents, local safety standards, hotels, even local airlines," says Travers Cox, managing director of Aldershot, England-based Explore Worldwide. The company has organized adventure-type holidays for small groups throughout Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia for the past 15 years. To escape liability, "we can only fall back on force majeure or if the traveler brings about a mishap," he said.
"Whoever issues the tickets has the liability," said Martin Rayfield, director of London-based broker Sedgwick Global, a division of Sedgwick Group P.L.C. "As a last resort, that's the company which will be liable. You can claim against an airline or a hotel first," but travelers typically seek compensation from the travel company first.
One example of a bizarre claim came from a woman who was on a trip to Burma that included an elephant ride at a jungle location. She arrived for the ride in open-toed sandals, and the elephant stepped on her foot, crushing it. The woman sued the travel agent and received a settlement, Mr. Rayfield said.
A court in Spain recently ruled that a tour operator was responsible for the fatal shooting of a young boy by Egyptian Islamic fundamentalists while on a bus trip. The case is under appeal.
Even though insurance is available to cover liability exposures and the cost of evacuating tourists from dangerous areas, Mr. Cox said the solution is not in buying coverage but common sense. Because companies such as Explore Worldwide offer tours to many risky areas, buying liability coverage is prohibitively expensive.
"We have good contacts on the ground, and if it is a case of riots and commotions, then we make a judgment on the situation" and curtail or terminate the trip, he explained.
In the 1980s, Peru, always a popular tourist location, was plunged into terrorist violence perpetrated by the Sendero Luminoso group, which resulted in the deaths of 25,000 people over the decade. The solution for tour operators was to avoid cities such as Ayacucho that were rebel strongholds. To visit the famous Inca city of Machu Picchu, flights were arranged through less risky areas.
"Things have calmed down a bit" since the capture in 1992 of Sendero leader Abimael Guzman, said Mr. Cox. "The problem now is finding enough space for everybody; Peru is so popular."
Nevertheless, much of the country is not safe for tourists. Explore Worldwide's tours do not go to regions where the Sendero guerrillas still are active.
Mr. Cox rules out traveling to Colombia due to unpredictable guerrilla activity in various parts of the country. "Colombia is a very beautiful country, but those places where we would like to take tours are too dangerous, so we don't operate there," he said.
Kidnapping is becoming an ever-greater danger for tourists in exotic locations. Even normally peaceful tourist centers, such as Ecuador, are witnessing tourist kidnappings on routes to popular centers such as the town of Otavalo, famous for its Indian fair.
In Yemen, kidnappings by local tribes are a relatively common form of political demonstration against the central government in Sana'a. Clashes between the tribes over land or water rights have resulted in occasional abductions of expatriate businessmen who work in the oil industry, and more recently of tourists, as both the number of foreign business people and tourists has grown over the past decade.
But kidnap victims always have been treated with courtesy and released without any trauma after a few days. This year, four German tourists were held for a week by tribesmen in the Marib region of eastern Yemen. The area is close to the still-disputed border with Saudi Arabia and famous for its 3,000-year-old dam and irrigation system.
For his tours to Yemen, Mr. Cox arranges to hire guards and to buy water from local tribes, which make the tour groups less tempting targets.
But tourists also must take responsibility for their actions and be aware of local problems and cultures.
"If somebody chooses to go to Yemen, they have to be aware of the kidnapping," Mr. Cox warned.
Insurance against kidnapping, which multinational companies in dangerous areas commonly buy, is cost-prohibitive for an individual tourist, said Aubyn Stewart-Wilson, a member of the Special Contingency Risks team at London-based broker Willis Corroon Group P.L.C.
"Kidnapping and ransom cover should not be sold on a blanket basis because you run into problems with confidentiality. K&R is specific to the person who buys it and has to be kept confidential," he noted.
Disruptive members of a tour group can create problems for tour operators, but most travelers know how to behave in different cultures, Mr. Stewart-Wilson said. "Most people who come on these trips are quite discerning," he said.
Tour members sign contracts to recognize the authority of their tour leaders. Anyone using or dealing drugs, a crime carrying the death penalty in countries such as Thailand, or contravening the customs procedures in any country, is deemed to have broken the contract. He or she is immediately told to leave the trip and gets instructions on how to get home.
Cancellations due to natural disasters or unexpected violence usually are handled by offering the clients an alternative trip. If all fails, their money is refunded. "We can stand that loss," Mr. Cox said.
Insurance against catastrophes or other contingencies is not an option. It would be too expensive considering the range of places to which Explore Worldwide organizes tours, he said.
More mainstream tour operators and travel agents, such as London-based Thomas Cook Ltd., say that evacuating clients from danger zones is a risk the company assumes without counting the cost. "We are not bothered what it costs us (to evacuate people) as long as our clients are safe," a Thomas Cook spokeswoman said. She declined to give details of the company's contingency arrangements or the costs of past exercises.
Governments also mobilize their armed forces and those of their allies to evacuate nationals from danger zones.
British authorities have been coordinating the ongoing evacuation of tourists and residents from the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where an erupting volcano is endangering the island's residents and businesses. Such rescues during recent violence in Albania and Sierra Leone evacuated mainly expatriate families rather than just tourists.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office in London said such exercises involve the armed forces of the nearest ally. So, evacuation procedures from Albania used Italian military; the rescue from Sierra Leone involved coordination with the U.S. military, which has a base nearby; while evacuation of the city of Aden during the 1992 Yemeni civil war involved cooperation with French forces stationed in the former French colony of Djibouti, on the other side of the Gulf of Aden.
Individuals are taken to the nearest safe country, from which they then are flown home. They are expected to pay for the air passage on commercial aircraft but not for the armed forces' rescue, the Foreign Office spokesman said.
As other governments do, the British Foreign Office provides excursion advice. "We issue travel advice on 140 destinations. On some, we say only go on essential business. Don't go to Iraq under any circumstances," he said. Other parts of the world that the foreign office thinks tourists should not visit are the Kashmir part of northern India and southeastern Turkey, where the Turkish army is engaged in a war against the rebel Kurdish Workers Party.
London-based Global Repatriation Services Ltd. has developed a political repatriation insurance policy aimed first at business executives, but it can be adapted to the tourist sector, says GPS Chairman Richard Roscoe. The policy will pay up to a limit of 100,000 pounds($166,000) per evacuee. It kicks in when:
The country of which the insured person is a national or where the policyholder's head office is registered issues a recommendation that the policyholder should leave the crisis area.
The policyholder is declared persona non grata on the written authority of the recognized government of the country of employment or residence.
The property, plant and equipment of the covered company are expropriated.
The policy will pay for: the cost of emergency travel to the nearest international airport plus hotel accommodation; onward travel by scheduled airline; and a specialist team to set up a crisis center in the country concerned. The policy will provide and pay for all arrangements for repatriation immediately after the decision has been made to evacuate.
Willis Corroon's Mr. Stewart-Wilson, whose Special Contingency Risks team is marketing the GPS policy, said there is no reason a travel company should not use this coverage for tours in potentially dangerous areas. But he has seen little interest in the policy so far.