Steve Jones’ Say

HELEN Wong is a widely respected and successful travel operator.

HELEN Wong is a widely respected and successful travel operator.

But I thought it a strange decision, and she made some odd (albeit interesting) remarks when she withdrew her company from the AFTA Travel Accreditation Scheme (ATAS).

And far be it from me to defend ATAS. I was a doubter at its inception and, perhaps more pertinently, argued against the dissolution of the Travel Compensation Fund. But we’ve all moved on since then.

Helen Wong’s Tours was one of 27 companies whose ATAS accreditation was recently cancelled. Twenty failed to renew with the remainder voluntarily withdrawing.

Upon her exit from the scheme, Wong said she needed convincing “why my company needs to have the accreditation to be trusted by consumers”.

It doesn’t. Participation of ATAS is clearly not mandatory and there are many well-established firms with a large and loyal following which could sit outside ATAS and not suffer any adverse trust issues. I’m sure AFTA would agree. But most choose not to, happy to support a scheme for the greater good of the industry.

Of greater contention was Wong’s assertion that no effort has been made to differentiate “ethical and non-ethical” agents, as “some of the members should never be accepted”.

We can only speculate who, and what “non-ethical” behaviour she is referring to. But as far as we know, ATAS is strict with enforcing the financial criteria needed for accreditation. Playing fast and loose with such a fundamental requirement, and accepting non-ethical agents generally, would go against the entire ethos of the scheme. It would be a foolhardy and treacherous game for AFTA to play.

In addition, Wong pondered whether consumers really care if a travel company is accredited or not. It’s an interesting question, but yes, in the main they probably do, and increasingly so in a digital environment where our senses are heightened to the risk, real or otherwise, of falling victim to data fraud, identify theft or some other such scam. We are living in suspicious and wary times.

Furthermore, travel is often the most valuable and anticipated purchase of the year. I imagine most people want to be satisfied they are spending thousands of dollars with a company that has a “seal of approval” from an industry body.

Let’s not forget — and this really is the key point — travel is now a deregulated industry and Wong is right when she said any charlatan can set up a travel agency without accreditation. Which is precisely why AFTA has a role to play in at least informing the public, as much as they are able, which agents have jumped through the ATAS hoops to demonstrate credibility.

If a company wants no part of it, then fine. That is the prerogative of any travel operator, and it doesn’t mean they’re a shonky operator. But neither is ATAS worthless, as Wong seems to be suggesting.

I used to enjoy disagreeing with Jayson Westbury but, alas, I’m with him when he argued ATAS is helping to maintain the reputation of the industry. Far better to have a voluntary accreditation scheme than none at all.


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