Travel Agent Obligations In The Mexico Tainted Alcohol Incident

by Paul Ruden
Travel Agent Obligations In The Mexico Tainted Alcohol Incident

Travel-agent responsibility and liability is a often-fine distinction that affect how you conduct your business. Photo: Shuttershock

By now all travel agents – and likely their customers – have seen the news. A young woman drowned in a swimming pool at an all-inclusive hotel, following the consumption of either multiple shots of alcohol or tainted alcohol served by the hotel, depending on which story you choose to read and believe.  

The comments posted on some of the websites that reported this news indicate that agents have a variable understanding of the risks and the actions that are expected of them.

Many travel industry insiders suggested that the decision to go to Mexico or not should be left up to the client, after the client has been informed of information material to the decision, primarily the information posted by the State Department. That is sound advice. But I want to add some nuance to the discussion in the hope of helping agents understand the often fine distinctions that affect how you conduct your business.

First, regarding the State Department advice. While the Department does its best to address issues arising around the world that might affect travelers, the cautionary advice in this case is not listed in the Travel Warning on Mexico; it is 11 paragraphs down on the Safety and Security sub-section of the country information page within Travel. 

Here is the advice:

Alcohol: There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out. If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill.

I suspect many prospective travelers will read that as simply a warning to “not drink too much” and move on. The problem in Mexico is alleged to affect some travelers after only one or two drinks, so the State Department advice is tepid at best.

I believe agents are well-advised to be more explicit with consumers, while understanding that there are no formal findings of any trusted government body as to what actually happened and why. Viewing all the published stories, however, suggests that this is not simply an inebriation problem. And, obviously, anyone affected by a drug-laced beverage is not necessarily going to be able to “seek medical attention.”

One plausible position put forward by a travel agent is that there are risks everywhere and this is no different. Respectfully, I think this case is different in a couple of aspects. First, the alcohol poisoning issue is in the news and is fraught with emotional baggage. In these circumstances, it may be necessary to provide more information than normal.

Also, I believe it is wise to always present the “bad news” with one or two alternatives you have already scoped out. This avoids presenting clients with a purely binary (yes or no) choice about Mexico. They may choose Mexico anyway, but you cannot be accused of pressuring them when you have already presented an alternative or two.

A second way this case is different from the “leaving home is risky” view is that it is not clear that the reported incidents are accidents or just bad luck. For one thing, this is not a new problem. The Mexican Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks reports that since 2010 the health authority has seized more than 1.4 million gallons of illegal alcohol in Mexico. Moreover, while the reported incidents are statistically tiny in relation to the volume of travelers at Mexican resorts, there are suggestions in the government’s reports that active bootlegging is going on, and controls and inspections that are in place may be insufficient.

Therefore, while the risk of alcohol poisoning appears to be small in terms of frequency, the consequences, according to the reports, are extremely serious and potentially fatal or, at the least, life-changing. As a result, travel agents should be absolutely clear in their explanation of the situation to prospective Mexico resort travelers, citing State Department and other published sources as factual background, confirming that the client understands, making a record of the conversation or retaining the email string, and always presenting an alternative at the same time as the warning.

There are, of course, no guarantees in these situations. But proactive measures and good record-keeping will help keep your clients safe while protecting your business from avoidable liability.

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