Measures to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the tourism sector – rescheduling of a package tour

On 6 April 2020, the Government approved a bill on certain measures to mitigate the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus epidemic on the tourism sector. On 8 April 2020, the bill will be discussed by the Chamber of Deputies Committee for Public Administration and Regional Development and subsequently by the Chamber of Deputies.

The Act applies to package tours starting on 20 February 2020 through to 31 August 2020. These dates are chosen because the package tour market is based not only on the epidemiological situation in the Czech Republic, but also in other countries, as already from approximately 20 February 2020, the disease was beginning to spread throughout Italy. On the other hand, although the relaxing of measures in the Czech Republic can be expected earlier than 31 August 2020, the impact of the pandemic on trips abroad is very likely to last longer, so tour operators and customers need to be able to respond to current travel opportunities in the longer term.

The proposal aims to maintain a balance between the legitimate interests of tourism businesses, i.e. organizers (travel agents) and customers.

The main principle of the proposal serving to protect the organizers is the definition of the protection period. During the term of the protection period, the obligation of the tour operator to refund the customer's payments under section 2536a of the Civil Code is postponed, provided that the original obligation under the tour contract ceased due to the COVID-19 pandemic due to withdrawal from the tour contract under 2535 or section 2536 para. b) of the Civil Code.

The protection period shall commence on the day of delivery of a voucher to the customer and shall end on 31 August 2021, unless terminated earlier in accordance with the bill. The organizers are thus given sufficient time to overcome the current difficult situation.

If the tour organizer decides to use the protection period, it will notify the customer in writing and issue a voucher for the tour at least in the value of the original tour. The organizer shall hand over the voucher to the customer in paper form, or electronically, if the original contract was concluded by means of distance communication or if the customer agrees. The voucher must contain, inter alia, a monetary amount at least equal to the value of the original trip and the date of commencement and expiry of the voucher. It must also be secured in the event of the bankruptcy of the tour operator, which is to guarantee the customer that he will not lose his money.

In general, the customer is not entitled to reject or return the voucher. However, the proposal protects particularly vulnerable groups of customers who can be expected to be affected by the measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic to have an adverse impact on their already difficult economic or social situation and allow them to return the voucher to the organizer and by a unilateral declaration terminate their participation during the protection period,  which entitles them to a refund of the original canceled trip. These are holders of disabled persons' cards, persons registered in the labor office as job seekers, pregnant women, persons on maternity or parental leave, or persons over 65 years of age, and employees who, as of the date of delivery of the tour organizer's notice were unable to perform work due to  other obstacles on the part of the employer for at least 30 days pursuant to sections 208 and 209 of the Labour Code.

The travel voucher is valid for the entire period of the protection period, i.e. until 31 August 2021. The customer is thus provided with a sufficiently long period to be able to use the travel voucher. For the duration of the protection period, the tour operator is obliged, at the customer's request, to offer the customer a substitute tour of the same or higher quality than that agreed in the original tour contract.

If the proposed alternative tour is of the same quality, the organizer must not require the customer to pay any difference in price from the original tour contract beyond the voucher. If the proposed alternative tour is of higher quality, the customer is obliged to pay the difference in price only if the organizer also offered the customer a tour of the same quality and the customer did not take advantage of this offer.

If the organizer has not offered a substitute tour to the customer within 30 days of the date on which the customer requested the organizer to offer a substitute tour, the protection period expires and the organizer's original monetary debt to the customer becomes due. In case the voucher is not used by the customer during the protection period, the organizer must return to the customer all the paid payments for the original trip within 14 days from the end of the protectone period at the latest.

The bill also seeks to protect customers with another tool. In the context of the pandemic of COVID-19, many customers may face social and economic difficulties that do not allow them to realize the tours they book. These customers can use their right to withdraw from the tour contract according to section 2533 of the Civil Code, which is usually associated with the obligation to pay the tour organizer severance (the cancellation fee). In these cases the bill allows the customer to ask the organizer within 3 months from the date of termination of the contract for the issuance of a travel voucher in the value of the severance paid, the organizer is obliged to issue the voucher within 14 days from the date the customer asked for it. The period of validity of such a voucher shall be at least 12 months from the date of its issue. The customer will be able to use the voucher for the full or partial payment of the price of the replacement tour.

In addition, in order to ensure sufficient customer protection, the draft law provides that arrangements that restrict or exclude special rights set out in the draft customer protection law shall not be taken into account.