Sunwing under fire after Cuban resort outbreak

Note: This story was published in Aug. 2015. 

READ MORE: From Jan. 18, 2016. Canadian travellers report illnesses at Cuban resorts promoted and operated by Sunwing

TORONTO — Canadians with confirmed bookings to a Cuban resort where it’s believed norovirus made travellers sick say their tour operator hasn’t allowed them to switch to another resort or wanted to charge them.

“No, I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to be exposed to that … everyone’s health is at risk; that’s not fair,” said Kayla Halloran, a third-year Ryerson nursing student with a ticket to visit the resort with a friend later this month.

READ MORE: Sunwing, Cuba Tourist Board say resort safe after norovirus outbreak

After seeing a Global News story on problems at the Memories Paraiso Azul Resort in Cayo Santa Maria Cuba, she contacted tour operator Sunwing Vacations to ask to be switched to another resort.

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“They said I could change my resort to somewhere else but I have to pay a change fee plus a cancellation fee,” Halloran said.

Global News received a cascade of complaints from Canadian travellers who returned from the resort.

They said they had experienced diarrhea and vomiting during most or all of their vacations.

Some reported seeing feces wash up on the hotel beach, finding feces beside the swimming pool, and experiencing dirty washrooms with toilets that didn’t work.

Other travellers told Global News they visited the same property in April and that it was without fresh water for two days.

During that time, Canadians visiting said they had no access to clean linens or water to flush toilets; they said staff at the hotel had no means to wash dishes or sanitize food service areas.

But despite the problems, they said the tour operator continued to send travellers to the resort.

WATCH: Canadians who traveled to what they thought was a luxury beach resort in Cuba say they got seriously ill. As Sean O’Shea reports, many tell Global News that tour operator Sunwing Vacations kept sending vacationers in spite of reports of sickness.

Maria Peragine of Brampton says 11 members of her family, including her husband and three children were violently ill at the resort when they visited in late July.

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She says the company has not been providing accurate information about the illness and relied on misinformation about the extent of the illness from local representatives.

“If someone at your company told you it’s fine there, then they are bold-faced liars,” Peragine wrote in an email to Sunwing.

The tour operator criticized extensive news coverage by Global News of the problems at the resort and how Sunwing handled the situation, alleging the company’s statements were “misrepresented and taken out of context.”

Sunwing has declined since Tuesday to speak on-camera to Global News, instead releasing short statements late in the day.

In a terse email Thursday, Sunwing marketing vice president Janine Chapman provided a statement to Global News for its television broadcast, prefaced with this unusual proviso:

“We will provide you with the below statement for this evening’s segment on the basis that it is read in its entirety, uninterrupted.”

As a matter of journalistic policy, Global News does not agree to such demands.

The television report used relevant excerpts of Sunwing’s statement and the full statement can be read below.

WATCH: Canadian travelers who went to a Cuban vacation destination got seriously ill last week. As Sean O’Shea reports, the company says it’s investigating what happened.

Marisa Fournier of Belleville, Ont. has a trip planned to the Cuban resort later this month.

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She called Sunwing to ask about being moved to another resort.

“I’m offering to pay more money to move somewhere else; they said no,” she said.

“I said to the girl on the phone: if you were in my shoes, would you be travelling there with your family? She said no.”

Late Thursday, Fournier contacted Global News to say Sunwing had contacted her since our interview and things had changed.

“Sunwing is now letting people change resorts, we have chosen a new resort. Thanks,” she wrote in a text.

The company maintains it is working with clients:

“Sunwing has been offering any concerned customers the option to change their resort based on applicable rates without levying any administrative or change fees,” said Chapman, the Sunwing marketing vice president.

Mindy Lee of Toronto called Sunwing Thursday to ask about switching resorts but says she didn’t get a warm reception.

“When I first called, I was told that because I did not purchase their travel insurance, they wouldn’t do anything for me,” she said.

“Upon requesting an update on the state of the resort, I was placed on hold and then hung up on.”

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Sunwing maintains that the resort is now safe for travellers, but the Cuba Tourist Board can’t confirm that.

Eloy Govea, director for Canada, said he is awaiting the results of an investigation to be made available.

Maria Peragine says days after returning from Cuba, her family is starting to feel better.

But she says Sunwing ought to have stopped sending travellers to the Memories Paraiso Azul when it was clear people were getting sick.

“They knew about it and continued to allow guests to come to the resort,” said Peragine.

“I’m amazed at how they continue to lie.”

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