TORONTO — A growing number of Sunwing Vacations customers are stepping forward to say they got seriously ill on trips booked with the Toronto-based tour operator in recent months.
“I am still a week later struggling,” said Amanda Klein, 26, of Medicine Hat, Alta.
Klein and a group of friends spent a week at the Memories Paraiso Azul Beach Resort in Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba in early January. She says she became violently sick with diarrhea and vomiting soon after arriving.
After new reports of illnesses at the Cuban resort–widely reported by Global News in 2015–many other Sunwing customers came forward to say they experienced illness, too.
“We tried to ride it out but it got so bad that my husband ended up in emergency,” said Ashlee Hanefeld, who stayed with her husband at the Memories Varadero resort from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3.
Hanefeld said medical testing later revealed her husband suffered from Salmonella poisoning, a potentially serious food-borne intestinal infection.
Alejandra Cline stayed at the Memories resort in Cuba with her husband and two children in the first week of January, having paid for an upgraded room.
“The food was bad. I had a piece of bread and it was completely rotten in the inside, you could smell the mold,” Cline said. “It was just a really bad experience.”
Canadians returning from Cuba for years have complained about the blandness of food served at some all-inclusive resorts in the country. But travelers told Global News they witnessed unsafe food-handling practices which they believe contributed to illness.
“I didn’t expect for the food to be prepared in such an unsanitary manner,” said Celina Radoi, who visited Cuba twice before her visit to the Memories Paraiso Azul in late December.
“The cross-contamination was what struck me the most. Staff would use the same utensils to cook the raw meat and the vegetables. The food would be sitting out for hours This was just what we could see; I don’t want to know what was happening back in the kitchen,” she said.
Most travelers who contacted Global News with food safety complaints say buffet items that should be kept refrigerated, like cold cuts and cheese, were left exposed to heat for hours, melting in the heat of the intense sun. Conversely, items that ought to be kept warm were not heated, they said.
“We can’t generalize this is happening 100 per cent of the time but it can happen anytime,” said Dr. Mark Wise, a Toronto physician and travel health specialist.
He says even at the best of times, buffets pose potential risks to diners because of the possibility that food isn’t managed properly.
“Those are all signs of improper food handling,” Wise said when asked to comment on reports by travelers of inadequate refrigeration and lack of heating in restaurants at various resorts.
But in contrast to allegations of poor conditions leading to illness, Sunwing denies there’s a serious problem.
“During the past three months, 400,000 Canadian customers have travelled with us to tropical destinations,” said Rachel Goldrick, corporate communications manager at Sunwing.
“Of these, less than two per cent have contacted us to address any type of complaint or concern, with a small fraction of these relating to concerns around hygiene or illness,” Goldrick said.
“We work very hard to ensure that our customers’ vacation experience is a positive one, which is exemplified by our customer satisfaction rate of 94 per cent based on over 500,000 survey results annually,” she said.
But Tracy Reker disagrees.
“We feel mislead, lied to, and feel the trip was a complete waste of our hard-earned dollars,” Reker said after returning from the Be Live resort in Punta Cana on Jan. 8, booked through Sunwing.
Reker said she estimated “70 per cent of the resort” was ill during the week she vacationed with her husband and two children. She says Sunwing shouldn’t continue to book Canadians into resorts like Be Live.
“Bottom line: Sunwing continues to send people to this resort when they are fully aware that people have been deathly ill there just days before! The reviews on Trip Advisor are enough to make you cringe,” Reker said.
A year ago, Tina and Chris Riley took a Sunwing vacation to the Club Amigo Carisol Los Corales in Cuba. The Toronto couple say they had reasonable expectations about the resort, but didn’t expect what they found: the lowest floor entirely closed because of previous hurricane damage. And something unwanted in their own room.
“She (the maid) opened the closet and whole closet was moldy,” said Tina, who insisted the family be moved.
But Chris says, in general, Sunwing’s on-site representative minimized any concerns or complaints about the resort which included worries about the family’s personal security.
“I would never, ever fly with Sunwing again,” he said.
Michael Gibbons of Toronto, who said he has flown with Sunwing twice, says he will find another tour operator after two poor experiences.
“Truly, it’s one more example of you get what you pay for and in the future we’ll be paying for Air Canada and West Jet.”
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected on Jan. 20th to note the Rileys trip was to Cuba and not to the Dominican Republic.