Whenever events like the recent tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic hit the news, it sparks an important question: Do agents have a responsibility to disclose the incidents to their clients?
In the case of the incidents in the Dominican Republic, the answer is no.
Travel advisors don't have the duty to disclose dangers that are obvious or highly publicized, according to industry attorney Mark Pestronk.
"However, even in an absence of an established legal duty, you have to answer questions," said Pestronk, who writes the Legal Briefs column for Travel Weekly. "My advice is to say, 'We don't have any knowledge of what's going on there that you haven't already read about, so you need to make up your own mind.'"
When it comes to disclosure to clients, the incidents in the Dominican Republic are similar to issues that plagued Mexico about a year ago following some highly publicized news reports highlighting things ranging from sexual assault to death.
Pestronk said at the time that agents and tour operators are both subject to the same standard when it comes to warning clients about danger.
"The legal standard is that they must disclose dangers that they know about or should know about by reading the trade press and that the average client would not know about," he said. "On the other hand, they are not required to warn about obvious dangers or extremely highly publicized dangers. This standard is so vague that there is no way to apply it in practice, because you can never know which category a given danger will fall into until a jury decides after the fact."
With that in mind, Pestronk this week encouraged that agents first give clients the State Department's website and instruct them to navigate to its Dominican Republic page. After that, follow up with a link to that page via an email. Third, have clients sign a disclaimer including that link.
Travel advisors have been reporting that clients are coming to them with concerns about the Dominican Republic and, in some cases, canceling trips to that country in favor of somewhere else. Flight booking data indicates Jamaica, the Bahamas and Aruba are doing particularly well, while bookings to the Dominican Republic have plummeted.
As Pestronk recommends, Lindsey Epperly, founder of Atlanta-based Epperly Travel, directs clients to the State Department's information page about the Dominican Republic when they have questions. And the questions have been coming in; the Dominican Republic is one of Epperly Travel's top destinations.
In the wake of all the news, she's noticed a number of advisors posting in closed online groups about whether or not the Dominican Republic is safe. But those opinions are not to be shared with clients, she said, something she teaches all of her agents.
"I think you put yourself at risk if you say one way or another," she said. "It's not really your decision to make. It's the client's."