Travel

UK moves to prevent British tourists from lodging fake food-poisoning claims

Spanish tourism operators have threatened to ban Britons over scams that have cost industry €60m

The UK government is set to roll out measures to tackle a plague of false insurance claims filed by British tourists who say they have suffered food poisoning while abroad – a problem that is thought to have cost the Spanish tourism sector as much as €60 million in recent years, and which threatens to see tourists from the country blacklisted by some industry operators.

Tourists in Palma de Mallorca.
Tourists in Palma de Mallorca.Atienza / EFE

“Our message to those who make false holiday sickness claims is clear: your actions are damaging and will not be tolerated,” warned UK Secretary of State for Justice David Lidington, referring to tourists who take part in such scams.

British tourists returning from package vacations overseas have been using claims-management companies to file a complaint against the firm that organized the trip, alleging that the hotel meals made them ill. By doing so they often see the cost of their trip reimbursed, effectively gifting them a free vacation.

The scam has the potential of putting hoteliers out of business Chris Mottershead, Thomas Cook UK managing director

The situation has arisen because British consumer laws do not currently require claimants to produce any evidence. No doctor’s report is necessary, and claims may be filed up to three years after the event. Filing a complaint is so easy that some legal firms have even sent representatives out to tourist destinations to encourage them to fill out the necessary paperwork.

Since it is hard to prove that clients did not get sick, and faced with high legal fees if cases goes to court, tour operators generally accept the claims, then pass on the cost to the Spanish hotel as per their contract, in which the latter accepts responsibility for all damages. Holidaymakers get a full refund for the cost of the trip, and the intermediaries take a cut.

Faced with this situation, some tourism operators have threatened to hike prices for British tourists or even ban them altogether.

But the UK government has taken note, now saying it will crack down on the scam. One of the options on the table is limiting the legal costs that companies will have to pay to go to court to take on claimants. UK authorities have also warned tourists they face up to three years in jail if they are found to be filing a fake claim.

Your actions are damaging and will not be tolerated UK Secretary of State for Justice David Lidington

Recently, UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said the digestive systems of Brits had “become the most delicate in the world,” while the BBC cited the head of one travel company as saying UK tourists risked becoming “the laughing stock” of Europe, given that they attended the same hotels as the French, Germans and Danes, all of whom ate the same food without suffering from food poisoning.

UK travel industry association ABTA welcomed the new government initiative, noting the problem was hurting Spanish operators in particular. Last month, tour operators Thomas Cook and Tui warned the problem could spell the end of package holidays for British tourists. “It has the potential of putting hoteliers out of business,” said Thomas Cook’s UK managing director, Chris Mottershead.

The Spanish tourism sector is a key pillar of the national economy and has been crucial to the country’s economic recovery after the economic crisis. However, the low-cost model being pursued by the industry has come come under attack in recent years with residents in cities including Barcelona and Madrid saying mass tourism threatens to price locals out of certain neighborhoods while turning those areas into theme parks.

English version by George Mills.

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