Canadian travellers who ended up at a Cuba hotel that had little or no water for 12 days can file complaints with Ontario’s travel industry watchdog or sue in small claims court, according to the organization that regulates the province’s travel companies.
The Travel Industry Council of Ontario, known as TICO, governs licenced travel companies and enforces the province’s Travel Industry Act.
“We ask that consumers approach the travel company involved first to allow the company the opportunity to address the matter to the consumer’s satisfaction,” said Dorian Werda, TICO’s vice president of operations, while responding to questions raised by Global News about why travel agencies and tour operators continued to sell package vacations to the Starfish Cayo Santa Maria resort in Cuba in early March when the water system there wasn’t functioning.
Travellers told Global News they had little or no fresh water for their entire trip to the resort, making it impossible to flush toilets, take showers or wash their hands.
Some, like Donna Carvalho of Georgetown, Ont., returned to Canada and went almost immediately to hospital with severe diarrhea, vomiting and an excruciating headache. Carvalho was placed in isolation for five hours and released after she said doctors concluded she had likely become ill from unsanitary conditions at the resort.
Carvalho said she witnessed the hotel restaurant using a “dirty rag” to clean dishes, cutlery and glassware in lieu of a dishwasher. Other travellers described similar nauseating experiences.
“The dishes were often filthy and we witnessed people bathing in and around the pool. We tried not to think about just how unsanitary it all was, but now thinking of it – gross,” said Gary Pearson of Lindsay, Ont., who was on vacation with his girlfriend and staying at the Starfish resort.
“In Canada, if a school doesn’t have running water they close. If a restaurant doesn’t have running water, they close. However, this resort continued to check in new guests. Walking downwind from the restaurants filled our noses with a very unpleasant odour of rotting food, clearly from a lack of cleaning with limited water available,” said Pearson.
Executive chef Robert Rainford, who was an instructor at George Brown College and Centennial College in Toronto, said water is a must to operate a kitchen and restaurant safely.
“If you don’t have hot water, there is absolutely no way for you to continue cooking. Safety comes first,” said Rainford, author of Born to Grill and former host of Licence to Grill on Food Network Canada.
Rainford said he was “sickened and disgusted” when he saw the Global News story of the Starfish hotel kitchen and dining room remaining open in Cuba where there may not have been adequate water.
“In North America, that would not happen,” said Rainford, citing the oversight of restaurant inspectors and customers who would immediately report a problem.
“Somebody makes one call you’re shut down for the day,” he said.
In several email statements to Global News, tour operator Sunwing Vacations defended sending travelers to the Starfish hotel between Feb. 28 and March 10 when the problems persisted.
“We were informed by the hotel owners, the hotel management group, the local authorities and our own representatives that water levels were completely adequate to maintain daily operations, that there were no safety risks and that the situation would be swiftly resolved,” said Sunwing spokesperson Rachel Goldrick.
“On March 10th, the day following the new outage that affected Starfish Cayo Santa Maria specifically, it was determined that the water levels were low. At this point, we offered all clients the possibility to relocate hotel and moved over 180 clients. We also made alternative arrangements for clients scheduled to arrive that same day. It should be noted that the majority of our customers, some 576 guests staying at the property, did not take up our offer to be relocated and remained in house. On the following day, March 11th, the water supply was fully re-established and there have been no problems since this date,” said Goldrick.
Sunwing, which wasn’t the only tour operator selling vacations to the Starfish, said other hotels in the Cayo Santa Maria area were also experiencing problems with their water supply.
Sunwing said it offered compensation to travellers, although some said they were offered nothing.
Marisona Almazan sent Global News a copy of a back-and-forth email chain with Sunwing in which the company offered future travel vouchers, not cash compensation.
“We are able to offer you $357.00 CAD per adult in Future Travel Vouchers. This amount represents the value of xxx nights of your hotel stay and does not include airfares, airport/private transfers and taxes. In order to process the voucher, please complete the Full & Final Release attached and return it to my attention,” wrote Melissa Santos, who identified herself as a customer relations resolution correspondent.
“I’m not sure how they arrived at these amounts considering that we all flew at the same time and stayed at the same hotel with the same issues,” said Almazan.
Under Ontario’s Travel Industry Act, licensed travel agents and tour operators are expected to inform consumers if they become “aware of a change to any matter that is referred to in a representation and that, if known, might have affected the customer’s decision to purchase, the registrant shall promptly advise the customer of the change,” the legislation reads.
The law also sets out what should happen if the accommodations were misrepresented and the consumers were not informed in advance.
“If the accommodation is sold as part of a package that includes transportation to a destination, offer the customer the choice of a full and immediate refund of the amount the customer paid for the package, including all fees, levies, service charges, surcharges, taxes and other charges, or a comparable alternate package acceptable to the customer,” Article 39.2 (a) of the Travel Industry Act reads.
Carvalho said she believes that her tour operator and travel agent were negligent in sending her and her daughter to the Starfish resort when it had no proper water.
“This is wrong. They are liable for this. They are putting people’s lives at risk for a buck, and it’s not fair.”
With files from Alana MacLeod