Consumer protection in Hong Kong

Elderly couple and Hong Kong travel agency in row over deposit refund after tour cancellation

The pair called off their holiday after realising they were unsuitable for yellow fever vaccination, but operator says terms and conditions already specified

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 November, 2017, 3:06pm

An elderly couple accused a Hong Kong travel agency on Saturday of failing to refund their deposit for a South American cruise after the pair cancelled their booking because of vaccination issues.

The 66-year-old woman, surnamed Ma, and her husband, 69, claimed Wing On Travel did not tell them they had to get a yellow fever vaccine for the 25-day trip until after they paid HK$102,000 as deposit. The couple later learned they were unsuitable for the vaccination because of their age, and cancelled their tour, demanding a full refund.

Ma, who declined to reveal her full name, said the agency only agreed to refund them HK$40,000 for the trip, which was scheduled to start in February and cost more than HK$230,000 in total.

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“We earned this sum of money after great effort when we were young, hoping to fulfil our dreams of travelling,” Ma said. “But now our dreams have turned into nightmares.”

The saga started when Ma and her husband booked the cruise with Wing On Travel in early July. The tour covers a few South American countries including Argentina and Brazil.

Our dreams have turned into nightmares
woman surnamed Ma

The vaccine was recommended by local and international health authorities when visiting countries identified as yellow fever hotspots.

According to the World Health Organisation, Brazil and Argentina were listed among the countries.

But the pair later learned from a phone inquiry with the Department of Health that people aged 60 or older were at risk of suffering from side effects if administered the yellow fever vaccination for the first time.

An assessment by the department’s Travel Health Centre in late August confirmed the pair was not suitable for the vaccination.

“After reviewing their health condition, they have higher risk of suffering from severe side effects of the vaccination, including death,” according to a department letter Ma presented to the press.

The letter stated Ma and her husband were advised against visiting regions where yellow fever infections are a risk.

When Ma approached Wing On to cancel their booking and get back the deposit, she was told the agency did not accept cancellations and refunds under such circumstances.

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A receipt Ma presented on Saturday stated that a deposit refund would not be entertained after registration.

Wing On eventually agreed to refund HK$40,000 after the couple lodged complaints with the Travel Industry Council.

But Ma and her husband were not satisfied with the arrangement.

“Where is the remaining HK$60,000? she asked. “The tour hasn’t even started yet. Why should that much money be forfeited?”

In a reply to the Post, Wing On said the tour brochure already listed information on yellow fever vaccination in bold. It also stated that travellers with certain conditions might not be suitable for the vaccination.

The agency said its staff had explained the important items, including vaccination, to Ma and her husband before they paid the deposit.

It added that the Brazilian consulate in Hong Kong had confirmed that vaccination was not required when entering the country. Wing On argued it was the couple’s “personal consideration” not to proceed with the trip.

As part of the deposit had already been paid to relevant service suppliers, the full sum could not be refunded, the agency said.

Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Jonathan Ho Kai-ming, who has been helping the couple, said the row revealed insufficient mechanisms to protect consumers in the city.

Ho hoped that a grace period for refunds would be introduced for travel services involving large sums of advance payment.

An industry source familiar with the matter described the case as “unreasonable”.

“Wing On should not forfeit that much money,” said the source, who declined to be named. “Some travel agencies would allow payment for a cancelled tour to be used for other services in the future.”

But he added the couple’s case was weak if Wing On acted according to terms and conditions stated in the receipt.

Travel Industry Council executive director Joseph Tung Yao-chung said it would be difficult to introduce a grace period for travel tour bookings.

“Airlines and hotel bookings usually don’t have such conditions. So travel agencies cannot bear the penalty if customers decide to withdraw later.”

Tung advised consumers to read clauses carefully before proceeding to sign up for tours.