The Navigator: Do we need an International Travelers Bill of Rights?

One moment, 8-year-old Brent Midlock was swimming in a shallow saltwater pool at an all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The next, he was gone.

“It’s something I think about every day,” says his mother, Nancy Midlock. Her son had been sucked into an open drainage pipe, his shoulder and elbows violently dislocated by the force of the water. His body was recovered a day later. Midlock, a business teacher from Shorewood, Ill., says that if she had known about the lack of lifeguards and medical facilities at the resort, she never would have booked that tragic vacation in 2003.

Midlock’s loss has led to the introduction of the International Travelers Bill of Rights, new bipartisan legislation in Congress that would require online travel agencies to disclose information about the potential health and safety risks associated with overseas vacation destinations marketed on their sites, including State Department warnings and information about on-site health and safety services, such as the availability of a doctor, nurse or lifeguard.

“It’s important that when consumers are booking online travel they have all the necessary information to make informed decisions,” says Greg Lemon, a spokesman for Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the bill’s lead sponsor. He adds that if a hotel can disclose amenities such as wireless Internet and fitness facilities, there’s no reason it can’t also let guests know what medical assistance is available. “A family has the right to know if a hotel has access to critical emergency care before they book a trip,” Lemon adds.

It’s hard to imagine anyone challenging a law like this, if for no other reason than that it would seem insensitive to Midlock’s loss.

But think again.

“We believe that this bill as drafted, while well intentioned, would confuse consumers, potentially making them believe that there are dangers that may not exist, and could impose significant burdens on our companies that may not be imposed on similarly situated competitors,” says Joe Rubin, president of the Interactive Travel Services Association, which represents the major online travel agencies.

And it isn’t just online agencies that would have trouble with the legislation. Rubin says that the bill could also impose a “significant” burden on hotels and that it would be difficult to comply with the law, given the number of international hotels. “A local hotel’s policies may change from season to season, further complicating and burdening compliance for all parties,” he says.

Lisa Costello, a spokeswoman for the American Hotel & Lodging Association, which represents the hotel industry, echoes Rubin’s sentiments. “Our issue really just revolves around the feasibility of providing the information required,” she says. “Our industry is simply not tracking any of the information they are seeking to capture outside the U.S. in a comprehensive way.”

The bill fails to take into account the complexities of the hotel industry, with layers of owners, franchisees and management companies, each with its own interests, she says. As a result, the proposed notification system would need to be built from the ground up. “It would be difficult to maintain in real time and would not achieve the intended goal,” she says.

I checked with the State Department, which already publishes some of the information that the bill would require. The department’s country-specific information covers general health, safety and security information, a representative told me. U.S. embassies and consulates can also provide information about medical facilities available locally, including hospitals, clinics and labs. The government doesn’t offer that information specifically regarding a hotel, though.

When I asked the department whether international visitors were demanding more detailed information about security, a representative replied, “We haven’t seen an increase in concerns being raised about the quality of the information we provide.”

Some of the supplemental information is already available from third parties. For example, a company called e-Travel Technologies offers safety information culled from various news sources, which can help travelers make a more informed decision. Late last month, the travel insurance site TripInsurance.com announced that it would enroll all its customers in the service. (Disclosure: TripInsurance.com is an underwriter of my travel blog.)

The legislation is also problematic because it affects only online merchants, who sell just a fraction of hotel accommodations (online travel agencies sell about 15 percent of rooms, and roughly the same amount are sold through hotel Web sites). International hotels are an even smaller subset of that — roughly one-quarter — according to an estimate by PhoCusWright, a travel consulting firm. Paul Ruden, a senior vice president at the American Society of Travel Agents, says that although higher-end concierge agents can offer detailed information about medical facilities, mandating it is “not realistic or viable.”

“If health considerations are a factor in an individual’s travel, the individual has obligations of her own not to simply rely on published information,” he adds. “She must disclose her specific needs early in the process and take responsibility for the ultimate decision of where to stay.”

I agree that travelers should take responsibility for their safety, but I think that the travel industry can help. Frankly, I’m surprised that a hotel can offer details about its amenities but little if anything about its medical facilities or any potential health risks involved in travel. Maybe trips should come with warning labels, and maybe this is the right legislation to make that happen.

But if such a law had been in place when Midlock booked her trip, would it have made a difference? Yes, she thinks. “I wouldn’t have chosen to take my family to Mexico,” she says.

The centrist in me agrees with the travel industry that the International Travelers Bill of Rights is an unnecessary step toward a nanny state. But the consumer advocate in me says that it doesn’t go far enough. Exempting offline travel agents and domestic hotels smacks of a compromise. Don’t we deserve to have this information about every hotel, no matter how we book it?

I will sit here and argue with myself. Meanwhile, pay close attention to health hazards when you travel — anywhere.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

 
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