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Critics blast Ontario government for 'absolute failure' to protect Conquest travellers

TORONTO - Angry Canadians are returning home from ruined vacations to mounting questions about the role the Ontario government should have played in warning travellers about Conquest Vacation's impending demise and whether Ottawa did enough to help those who were stranded.

TORONTO - Angry Canadians are returning home from ruined vacations to mounting questions about the role the Ontario government should have played in warning travellers about Conquest Vacation's impending demise and whether Ottawa did enough to help those who were stranded.

Ontario's New Democrats are placing the blame squarely on the provincial government, saying it oversaw the "absolute failure" of its regulatory body to protect travellers stranded by Conquest.

The Travel Industry Council of Canada "knew almost half a year ago that Conquest Vacations had a cash-flow problem," New Democrat Peter Kormos said Monday.

"TICO knew that travellers were at risk," Kormos said. "The government had an obligation to warn those customers. ... It's clear that the whole regulatory process for travel agencies is an absolute failure. It's a mockery, it's a sham."

The travel council has said it's trying to help Canadians who have been told they must pay for their hotel rooms after Conquest closed its doors last week because of economic problems, leaving many of its customers in the lurch.

But delayed compensation means little to travellers like Kristina Trollip of Waterdown, Ont.

The 36-year-old is angry that her family had to shell out close to $10,000 for a vacation that has traumatized her seven-year-old son.

"It was just so upsetting," Trollip said from her home Monday. "Here I take these two kids, supposed to have this great relaxing vacation, and from Wednesday onwards there's nothing expect stress.

"My son was somewhat traumatized. Every single night he asked, 'Are they going to arrest us? What if they take our stuff? What if they kick us out of our room?"'

Trollip said her family was forced to pay close to $4,000 to leave to hotel - in addition to the $3,600 she had already paid for herself, her husband and two young children, and the $2,800 paid by her in-laws, who were at the resort with her.

She called the travel council's knowledge of Conquest's problem's "ridiculous."

"If this company knew that they were going to go bankrupt and they waited until (hundreds) of Canadians were stranded across the world, what the hell?"

But she's equally angry at Canadian government officials, whom she found rude and unhelpful.

Trollip called officials in Ottawa twice and said she was told: "It's not our problem."

"They said, 'You're there and I suggest you pay the hotel,"' Trollip said.

"I get maybe this isn't a foreign issue and they don't want to get involved, but there should have been something abroad to help Canadians."

Toronto resident Bissoongai Seepersaud, who was staying at a Cancun resort with her sister and four children, said managers threatened to call police if she didn't pay the full US$6,000 they claimed was owed by Conquest for her time at the resort.

Now back in Canada, she called the trip "a disaster," and is still reeling from the rude treatment she received from hotel staff - and waiting to be reimbursed.

"The sad part is the travel agency knew Conquest was having problems and they never let us know," Seepersaud said.

"You kind of expect something."

Ontario Consumer Services Minister Harinder Takhar defended the travel council, saying it had been trying to help Conquest deal with its finances and that the regulator couldn't just divulge information that could have led to a shutdown of the company and left travellers stranded.

"The only thing that was not in order was their working capital, and TICO was working with them to address those issues," Takhar said.

"I will ask them to look at their processes and systems. If we can improve any systems and processes, we will do that."

Takhar said the travel council has been working with more than two dozen hotels to help travellers and to reimburse them for expenses.

Ontario's travel industry has a $29-million fund that will reimburse travellers up to $5,000 if they're forced to pay at checkout.

For travellers looking to book trips now, Takhar recommended doing due diligence and calling the travel council for additional information.

Council officials were not immediately available for comment.

Foreign Affairs would only respond with a previously issued statement saying it had "been providing information and consular assistance to Conquest Vacation clients in the United States, the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe," and noting that most of the hotels had not sought payments.

Conquest president Errol Francis has remained silent since the company announced it was going under.

 
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