MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Bojana Ristic said she’s still recovering mentally from her Cuban vacation to the Memories Paraiso Azul Beach last October. A trip she said left her “super sick” at a resort that served “disgusting food.”
“The stuff that was supposed to be chilled and cooled wasn’t. The stuff that was supposed to be hot wasn’t,” Ristic said.
“It felt like we were a part of some cruel joke, dropped on an island and forced to fend for our lives. Not unlike the reality show “Survivor,” according to the 27-year-old Toronto woman.
Her claims mirror a myriad of complaints about Cuban resorts marketed by tour operator Sunwing Vacations but primarily the Memories Paraiso Azul. Global News received at least 80 independent e-mail complaints in January about Sunwing in addition to dozens of online comments describing poor conditions and health issues at resorts offered through the tour operator.
Linda Pearl Pugh-Gagnon of L’Assomption, Que., travelled with a group of 25 to the resort last July to renew her vows with her husband at the Memories resort.
Pugh-Gagnon said 23 of 25 in her party were severely ill. She blames Sunwing Vacations for sending her group to the hotel despite multiple complaints about the resort on review sites in the weeks leading up to the trip.
Pugh-Gagnon said she insisted her travel agent contact Sunwing and the resort a few days prior to departure to demand answers to questions about conditions there.
“She (the agent) called in front of me, she called Sunwing and the hotel and both of them said it would be no problem, it would be the best trip of my life,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry: everything was perfect, everything was resolved.”
But Pugh-Gagnon, 49, said the trip was a miserable one. Upon returning, she lodged a complaint with Sunwing on behalf of the group, demanding financial compensation. Five months later, after originally offering a complimentary week at the same resort (without airfare) she says Sunwing’s upped the offer to a $500 credit toward a future vacation for each traveler who spent a week at the resort and $650 for those who spent two weeks.
The Quebec woman said the offer was unacceptable because she’s not interested in travelling with Sunwing ever again.
Many other travelers who got sick or experienced what some described as “horrific” conditions told Global News they want compensation for vacations that fell below expectations.
Richard Smart, president and CEO of The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO), which regulates travel providers in Ontario, said his office is keeping an eye on what’s happening with Sunwing customers complaining about resorts.
“We are monitoring it closely, dealing with customers calling in,” Smart said.
Smart said he is in contact with senior Sunwing officials about the complaints brought to light in a series of Global News stories dating to August of 2015.
“We are limited under the legislation on how we can deal with those complaints; we can’t compel or mandate that a registrant provide a fee refund or compensation,” said Smart, who added TICO often tries to work to as “an in-between” to help consumers get compensation from tour operators in certain cases. He encouraged travellers to file written or telephone complaints with TICO.
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When it comes to compensation, Sunwing says each case is different.
In a statement, the company said; “We are very concerned to hear that some of our guests have had negative experiences while staying in certain resorts which we, among other Canadian Tour Operators, promote and sell. We proactively monitor operations in all of the resorts we offer on a continual basis and investigate any complaint we receive thoroughly. We cannot comment on individual cases, as each situation is different, however we can confirm that should an issue be identified, we are swift to take corrective action. We also negotiate appropriate compensation on behalf of our customers. We are proud to offer affordable, quality vacations for our Canadian customers and take our commitment to passenger care and safety very seriously.”
Sunwing has declined requests for on-camera interviews with Global News to discuss passenger claims of illnesses at resorts and complaints about sub-standard conditions.
In a separate letter from Janine Chapman, the company’s chief technology and marketing officer, Sunwing called Global News reporting on its company “grossly misleading”. She wrote that hotels complained about, including the Memories Paraiso Azul, are also “promoted and sold” by other Canadian tour operators.
“We have been made aware of consumers who have travelled to the resorts named in the time period in question and had balanced accounts which (Global News) has elected not to cover.”
Consumers unhappy about conditions on a packaged vacation or cruise need to hang on to their paperwork.
‘I think they definitely need to keep all the evidence, all of the documentation, make sure you have your contract. If you go to the doctors, make sure you have that all documented so that if it comes to legal action you have the evidence that you need,” said lawyer Alex Colangelo who also teaches in the Humber College business program in Toronto.
But many travel companies don’t make it easy for consumers to win in court.
“A lot of these travel contracts will have a provision in respect of waivers and courts will look at the language of the waiver, whether the risks were set out, whether the risks were pointed out to the traveller,” Colangelo said.
Despite accounts from travellers who’ve returned from vacation ill and disappointed, other vacationers at Pearson Airport stood in line to board a Sunwing flight for Cuba Wednesday afternoon without worry.
“We’ve never had any problem,” said Barb Belzil of Niagara Falls, Ont. as she and her husband Rick finished checking in and prepared for another trip to Cuba.
But Jessica Adams, on the same flight to Cuba for a diving vacation and to accompany a group of senior citizens, was more cautious.
“God forbid something happens at the resort,” she said.
Bojana Ristic says she’ll never forget the sight of the food buffet at the Memories Paraiso Azul last fall.
“I almost threw up after I saw birds freely pecking away at the cheese. Never wanted to eat there again,” she said.
But Ristic did offer one positive comment on her Sunwing vacation and the resort.
“Positive: Beach was nice.”