Made in Japan: The dangers of an organized tour

The Travel Adviser: One quick lesson is to always read the small print before forking over money.

Japan lake 311 (photo credit: ALEX DEUTSCH)
Japan lake 311
(photo credit: ALEX DEUTSCH)
Let’s explore how a tour operator creates a tour. Take one of Israel’s leading operators – we’ll call them Adventure Tours. Designed for high-income, welleducated clientele, it has amassed over the years a sterling reputation for quality organized tours. Historically, organized tours were created to take the hassle out of traveling. No need to seek out hotels and worry about entrance fees, the client could peruse beautifully created brochures, compare different options and finally make an educated choice.
These days there are fewer and fewer places that one actually needs an organized tour. With a plethora of information available online, many customers over the years have shied away from travelling on a less than homogeneous tour. Yet traveling to the Far East is still one of the strongest regions that benefits from organized tours.
So when Eran and Michal decided to travel to Japan, they had no doubt that joining a tour made the most sense.
Travel to Japan is never cheap. Flights and land accommodations are not cheap and thus when they decided to spend over $12,000 they felt comfortable in registering with Adventure tours. In fact they felt so confident that 3 months prior to the departure date, they paid their travel agent the entire amount in full.
They could have paid the money directly to Adventure Tours, but felt they would be better served by doing so with their travel agent.
Unfortunately, the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leaks from the crippled nuclear reactor meant their planned Pessah tour was quite literally up in the air.
Immediately after the earthquake, they contacted the travel agent to inquire if the tour was going to operate. They were quite concerned that the destruction would simply ruin the trip and wanted to know what the cancellation fees were if they chose to cancel. Their travel consultant informed them of the basic facts.
Although they had paid her the entire amount, the agent had only transferred to Adventure Tours the non- refundable registration fee of $894. They knew that if they canceled, this initial deposit would be loss.
They were advised to wait and see how the situation in Japan unfolded. Sadly though, the last few weeks has seen no change in the situation and thus Adventure Tours announced that it had no choice but to cancel their tour.
A sensible decision indeed; a tour to see the destroyed countryside and to risk radiation poisoning was not what most consumers wanted. Obviously Adventure tours would return the deposit, the clients would get their entire money refunded and alternative holiday destinations could be considered.
There was a caveat to the email they received though. Adventure tours had decided to keep $225 per participant to cover their costs. At this stage, I became involved. One can understand if a tour participant elects to cancel a tour; the contract signed when registering clearly states that the deposit is forfeit if one cancels.
But if the tour operator cancels, logic would conclude that a full refund must be proffered.
A quick phone call to the company elicited their response that they incurred cancelation fees on the air tickets and land arrangements. In fact, the small print in their brochure does state that the company has the right to change or cancel the itinerary if circumstances outside of their control arise.
Curious to discover what their losses were, we contacted the airlines involved.
Surprise, surprise, the airline proudly declared they were taking no cancellation fees whatsoever. So the losses must be from the Japanese tour operator. Quite the contrary, they too announced that the hotels, bus companies and all parties involved had also waived any cancellation fees.
So what were the costs that Adventure Tours had that compelled it to charge $225 cancelation fee from over 300 participants on its spring tours to Japan? To understand, one must explore what goes in to planning a tour. This was not Adventure Tours’ first one to the Far East. In fact, it’s been running these tours for several years, tweaking the itinerary and changing hotels throughout the time but had zero setup costs involved. Thus the only out of pocket expense it had was one of salaries.
Now I too run a large company and can commiserate that the largest part of my expenses is my staff’s salary. SO WHAT! That should never be the concern of the client. All travel agencies and tour operators have similar expenditures. Now if the client had purchased a non refundable ticket and been forced to cancel for whatever reason, the client would have to absorb the loss.
In this instance though, the company canceled her own tour. It boggles the mind that any tour operator would try to pass on their staff expenses to the client.
Another phone call to the Israeli Association of Travel agents and Tour Operators to find out what legal recourse the client had was met with a sympathetic voice but the sad reality that the small print of the contract did allow them to charge this fee.
One quick lesson is to always read the small print before forking over money The next step will be to contact Consumer organizations to see if some relief can be found. One wants to believe that a barrage of letters will encourage the company to make a full refund. Professionally. I have the highest regard for Adventure Tours and hope that senior management comes to their senses.
Being right is not always the smartest path.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.

For Questions and comments email him at