Travellers need to be allowed to opt out

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am

The situation can only be described as farcical. As Thai soldiers fired their guns to warn off anti-government protesters who had paralysed parts of Bangkok, where a state of emergency was declared on Sunday afternoon, planeloads of Hong Kong tourists continued to head for the Thai capital as late as yesterday morning. This was because both airlines and travel agents had maintained a no-refund rule on travel arrangements, even as the confrontation between Thai troops and protesters turned violent. It was not until yesterday afternoon that travellers were given the option of changing their travel plans.

It was as if nothing had been learned from the events of November, when thousands of Hongkongers were stranded in Bangkok after protesters stormed its two civilian airports and halted all international flights in and out of the city. The Hong Kong government was roundly condemned for failing to put on chartered flights to bring its people back as quickly as other governments did. To be fair to the authorities, they cannot be accused of not having done enough for Hong Kong tourists and businesspeople on that occasion. An extraordinary situation without precedent in Thailand had arisen, creating a learning experience for governments the world over. With that hindsight, however, there can be no excuse for the response to the events of recent days.

In terms of issuing travel advisories, our government did spring into action much more quickly this time round. As signs emerged last week that protesters were gathering in Pattaya, it started calling on Thailand-bound travellers to pay close attention to the local situation. By Sunday afternoon, after a state of emergency was declared in Bangkok, travellers were advised to 'seriously consider' changing their travel plans. After shots were fired overnight, the warning issued early yesterday morning was 'don't go unless it's necessary'. By 11.30am, the government began to 'strongly urge' people to avoid travelling to Thailand.

But warning travellers not to go to a danger zone is one thing; whether they can actually change their travel plans is another. Secretary for Security Ambrose Lee Siu-kwong was right to note that Hong Kong people have the right to freedom of movement and cannot be prevented from travelling to a dangerous destination. But where his line of reasoning falls short is that in practice, the no-refund rule of airlines and travel agents means that even risk-averse travellers have no option but to take their scheduled trips.

In the wake of what happened in November, the government said it would conduct a review to guide future responses to similar contingencies. Whatever the review might have recommended, it is now apparent that the government has failed to enable travellers to change their travel plans in the wake of breaking developments in their destinations without being penalised. This is clearly not a satisfactory arrangement. Travellers, especially those on package tours, should have the legal right to opt out of their plans if the security situation in their destination deteriorates.

Airlines, travel agents and others in the travel industry probably have their own reasons for requiring customers to honour their contractual obligations no matter what, just as they are expected to put on agreed services under any circumstances. But there are certainly situations where it makes sense for every party concerned to allow customers to opt out of their travel commitments. Perhaps what is needed is an industry-wide mechanism to make that option available when needed, with backing from the government.