International tourism is returning, but Australians are still restricted to domestic travel as COVID-19 outbreaks cause “cancellation chaos”.
That’s according to a report by consumer advocacy group Choice, which calls on governments to implement urgent reforms to protect consumers and boost confidence among travellers.
Based on a survey of 4400 Australians who had travel plans disrupted by pandemic restrictions, the report found many travellers faced long waits for refunds, and some missed out altogether.
Since the pandemic started, Australians have been “forced to navigate cancellation chaos rather than receiving clear and practical advice on their rights”, report author and Choice consumer rights expert Alison Elliott said.
More than half the respondents to Choice’s survey waited more than three months for a resolution to their cancelled travel, with nearly a quarter waiting more than six months.
“Waiting over six months to get a refund is far too long, even in pandemic conditions,” Ms Elliott said.
She called on the state and federal governments to provide “stronger and clearer consumer protections to help Australians have the confidence to book travel in the future”.
Most travellers miss out on full refunds
Travellers who had plans cancelled due to the pandemic were often left out of pocket, with most missing out on full refunds, Choice found.
Just 17 per cent of respondents to Choice’s survey said they received a full refund for cancelled trips.
A further 20 per cent said they received a partial refund, while 7 per cent reported receiving a refund but having to pay cancellation fees.
A travel voucher or credit note was the most common resolution, with one in four travellers (25 per cent) receiving one.
“With many consumers having not received a full refund, many expressed dismay that they paid for a service that they have not received,” the report said.
“They expressed frustration that thousands of dollars were often tied up with travel and tourism businesses for many months.
“This situation was particularly acute for people who were experiencing
hardship due to job losses.”
Ms Elliott said people booking travel in Australia have “faced inconsistent and unfair treatment since COVID-19 emerged in early 2020”.
Those forced to cancel trips “are now grappling with impractical limitations on travel vouchers and unfair solutions to a problem they didn’t cause”, she said.
“Just like the EU and UK, we should have clear rights to refunds when travel plans are cancelled.”
Alongside its push for easier travel refunds, Choice also urged the state and federal governments to introduce:
- Minimum voucher/credit rights
- A mandatory industry code for all airlines and large travel providers
- A travel and tourism industry ombudsman
- Mandatory information standard at time of booking
- A national travel restrictions website, and
- A market study into the travel and tourism sector by the consumer watchdog.
International tourism and ‘travel bubbles’
International travel is slowly resuming around the world as vaccination rates rise.
In May, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi welcomed the return of international tourists.
“It’s time for you to book your holidays in Italy,” Mr Draghi said.
Italy is far from alone, with Spain expecting to hit its target of welcoming 45 million foreign tourists in 2021.
Spain is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, and was visited by 83.5 million foreign tourists in 2019.
But Australians are likely to be restricted to ‘travel bubble’ destinations and domestic travel for some time to come.
The federal government is yet to give a date for when international borders will open, but the recent federal budget forecast that borders would remain closed until mid-2022.
New Zealand is the only overseas destination Australians can travel to, but speculation is increasing around which country will be next to form a travel bubble with us.
Polynesian island Samoa is one contender, with the nation hoping to welcome Australian tourists later this year.
“As regional travel bubbles take shape, Samoa has been striving to ensure critical components of our travel ready toolkit are in place,” the Samoa Tourism Authority chief executive Faamatuainu Lenata’i Suifua said.
“All of these efforts go towards ensuring we are in a position to open borders to our neighbours safely.
“We look forward to welcoming vaccinated visitors with open arms, when the time is right for all countries involved.”