Bogus food-poisoning claims could lead to hotels in the Spanish islands banning Brits from all-inclusive packages after a recent report showed this fraudulent practice had cost the industry €50 million last year in the Balearics alone.
A few months back, at a conference of Canary Island hoteliers and regional government tourism bosses, concerns were raised about ‘touts’ in British-registered vehicles advertising ‘free holidays’ and targeting visitors from the UK.
They would then convince the holidaymakers to file a claim via one of the prolific ‘no-win, no-fee’ companies in the UK for an upset stomach, meaning their entire trip fee would be refunded to them.
The scam has been compared with the current wave of ‘PPI’ cases in Britain and with false whiplash claims in car accidents.
And it is far from a victimless fraud: whilst travel agency customers believe they are suing big companies who can easily afford to refund them a few hundred pounds, the claim in fact stops at the hoteliers, even in the case of major chains, since these are often run by family franchises.
Already, the proliferation of such claims – which have risen by 700% since 2015 – has led to mass job loss in the hotel industry and could even force resorts to close, adding to Spain’s already serious unemployment problem and potentially creating poverty.
“They don’t even need a doctor’s note”
One hotelier in an undisclosed Mallorca location says all-inclusive deals are targeted because holidaymakers’ food is served in one place for the whole week or fortnight, so there can be no issue with the gastroenteritis having possibly been caused by eating in a restaurant.
The hotelier was interviewed by left-wing British broadsheet The Guardian, and complains that the onus is on the resort owners to prove that the tourist in question did not get ill rather than on the holidaymaker to prove they did.
Visitors are not even required to show a doctor’s note for their claim to be automatically accepted by the UK travel industry, he says.
The fact that guests from Germany and The Netherlands – who outnumber Brits three to one – never apparently suffer food poisoning or, at least, never put in claims, is not considered sufficient proof that the Brits in question are lying.
And seasoned travellers are well aware that the risk of food poisoning always exists and rarely has anything to do with the quality of what they eat, but is entirely down to their own stomach bacteria not being used to ‘foreign’ food and drinking water – in fact, many British expats living in Spain who do not visit their home country regularly admit they often end up with upset stomachs when they go to the UK, since the tap water and food is ‘different’.
“Only Brits seem to get food poisoning; Germans and Dutch never do”
Interestingly, mass food poisoning seems to strike British tourists wherever they go, but does not affect any other nationality – all-inclusive resort owners in Turkey, Bulgaria and Cyprus have reported huge losses caused by numerous claims made by visitors from the UK.
In fact, the hotel industry in Cyprus has seen its outgoings rise by around €6m in the last two years as a result.
Hoteliers in all four countries coincide in their observation that holidaymakers who suffer food poisoning never complain to the hotel when they are actually on site and allegedly suffering from upset stomachs – they only ever do so via a lawyer once they are home and have already recovered.
Sometimes, they wait as long as three years before claiming compensation.
All four countries say the bogus claims are damaging British holidaymakers as much as their destinations – now, Brits are acquiring a reputation as fraudsters and resort owners are becoming wary of accepting bookings.
This means honest Brits could end up with nowhere to stay except self-catering accommodation.
Yet hoteliers feel they are being held to ransom by tour operators – they do not want to upset these too much as ‘they are the ones who bring in the tourists’ they need to earn a living.
Spain, and in particular the Canary and Balearic Islands, appears to be the worst-hit, with on-street touts advertising potential compensation pay-outs of up to 3,000 pounds (€3,600) even when the entire holiday only cost perhaps 500 pounds (€600).
According to The Guardian, these tourists are told they only need to show a purchase receipt for a packet of diarrhoea medication from a pharmacy in the area they are on holiday in for their claim to prosper – and most will happily pay out €2 or €3 for a box of Fortasec if it means getting €3,600 in return.
‘Scambulances’ touting for business
Tourism bosses say they saw a van decorated to look like an ambulance and bearing the words ‘Claims Clinic’ last summer in various parts of Tenerife, with the slogan ‘Claim today – ask for details’, and parking outside health centres and hotels.
But now Spain has cottoned onto the scam, drivers of these vans are beginning to feel the weight of the law – The Guardian reveals that a British person was arrested in Alcúdia, in Mallorca’s north-east, and another questioned.
Hotel bosses have figured out that the only way they can make themselves safe from these fraudulent claims is by trying to prove they are connected with the ‘pretend’ ambulances calling themselves ‘Claims Clinics’.
But there are so many out there it is difficult to police them – a simple search on Google for ‘holiday sickness’ brings up a long list of no-win, no-fee companies willing to sue hotels on holidaymakers’ behalf.
Some advertise on local radio across the UK and their profits are said to run into six figures, with the lawyers working for them typically earning even more than the holidaymakers earn in compensation.
“Two-thirds of claims are genuine and caused by poor hygiene in hotels”
Yet some of these companies insist that around two-thirds of food-poisoning claims they receive are genuine and slams a ‘crusade’ by ABTA, titled ‘Stop Sickness Claims’, saying ‘many resorts make scores of people unwell every year’ due to ‘lack of hygiene’.
They insist that it is ‘greater awareness’ of the ‘right to make a claim’ that has seen an upsurge in the number of holidaymakers suing resorts, and condemns the ‘gross negligence’ of ‘putting people in hotels serving food unfit for human consumption’, according to The Guardian.
Although Spanish tourism bosses say the country has no plans to ban Brits from all-inclusive deals, individual hoteliers are perfectly within their rights to refuse bookings if they consider there is ‘no guarantee’ they will be safe from fraudulent sickness claims.
The broadsheet quotes a hotel boss in Cyprus who says British consumer protection laws are at fault since ‘it cannot be that 500 people will eat from the same buffet, but only the British will get food poisoning’.