Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority (TTJA) has received its first complaints from members of the public wanting to cancel foreign trips to areas at risk from coronavirus.
The authority says that while its views are not legally binding, tour operators need to bear in mind that courts may rule that consumers have a right to claim a full refund in this case, not fully a force majeure one, though compensation would probably not be applicable. At the same time, this is not up to the TTJA and the status of such complaints is not yet clear.
At-risk areas include Italy and the People's Republic of China – the two travel destinations related to the complaints the TTJA has received so far.
"Since the subject only recently emerged from our work, just two people have approached the consumer complaints committee (the TVK – a separate entity-ed.) thus far. One case was about a package tour to China, the other to Italy," TTJA spokesperson Anne-Mai Helemäe told ERR on Thursday.
In both cases, the two parties have yet to reach an agreement on whether the cancellation was due to unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances at or near the place of destination, which would have a significant impact on the provision of package travel, or the carriage of passengers to their destination.
In addition, about 30 people have asked the TTJA for advice on their rights. These queries have been related to package holidays, individual travel services and travel insurance, including from people traveling to northern Italy.
The authority's website carries information on the applicable EU package travel regulations as they pertain to passengers, where a tour operator has the right to terminate a package tour contract before the start of the trip when their destination, or its immediate vicinity, are experiencing unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances which affect substantially the travel services of the destination, according to ERR's online Estonia news.
These circumstances can include military action or other serious security issues such as terrorism, significant threats to human well-being like outbreaks of serious illness at the travel destination – as in this case - or natural disasters.
Taking into account the warnings of the Health Board (Terviseamet) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a passenger themselves may also have the right to cancel a package trip and get a full refund if the trip is going to or via a risk area, or state now not recommended to travel to. ", says the TTJA 's explanations.
Canceling by passengers in the latter cases should be done around two weeks prior to travel, the TTJA says.
At the same time, while refunds and cancellations are all well and good, such cases will not normally entail compensation, the TTJA said.
"If a package travel contract is terminated due to unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances at the destination, or in its immediate vicinity, the parties will not be entitled to claim from each other further damages," the TTJA said.
"As TVK sessions on the matter have not yet taken place, it is difficult to predict their outcome. It is important to stress here that the TTJA's opinion is not binding on either the TVK or the courts, who make their decisions independently. However, we have explained to both tour operators that they have to take into account the fact that the decision of the commission or the courts may result in the passenger having to be reimbursed their entire travel fee, as well as explaining to the latter the fact that no unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances existed [in the current coronavirus case] and the passenger thus may be not entitled to a full refund."
The TTJA has also met with the Association of Estonian Travel Agents (Eesti Turismifirmade Liit) and has also been in contact with various tour operators, it says.
"We have informed all of these about our point of view. We have advised travelers and tour operators to keep an eye on the virus, and virus and travel information from the Health Board and the foreign ministry. At the end of the day, the decision whether or not to travel is up to the consumer," a TTJA spokesperson said.
The primary at-risk areas at the time of writing are Italy, with over 3,000 confirmed cases, the People's Republic of China (over 80,000), South Korea (close to 6,000) and Iran (just under 3,000). Other locations mentioned in the media include Japan and Singapore, with Spain, France and Germany having experienced over 200 confirmed cases to date.
Estonia itself has had three confirmed coronavirus cases to date so far. Two of them were individuals who had traveled back via Riga, from Italy, and the other – the first confirmed case – from Turkey, also via Riga.
Editor: Andrew Whyte