Atoll Paradise attributes troubles to “lengthy delay in securing bank finance”

Tour operator Atoll Paradise has issued a statement “apologising unreservedly for any frustration caused to any of its customers due to recent cancellations.”

Atoll Paradise is one of the Maldives’ largest local tour operators. However, the Tourism Ministry last week suspended its permit amid allegations it had defrauded customers and international travel agents.

Tourism Ministry Senior Legal Officer Faseeh Zahir told Minivan News the government had have received several complaints in recent months that bookings had been cancelled by the company without being refunded.

“There are allegations of fraud and of the company not acting according to regulations. This is not just a case of one guest, we have received several complaints,” said Zahir. The company has also been fined MVR 1 million (US$65,000).

In its statement, Atoll Paradise said it “wished to make it clear that it is a reputable business organisation and the recent unfortunate developments stemmed from a lengthy delay in securing bank finance to sustain its business operations.”

Cancellations were “unavoidable”, the company said, while “strenuously emphasising” that no employee of the company “ has ever engaged in fraudulent activities towards any external parties.”

The company acknowledged it had encountered “some cash flow difficulties” in 2013, stemming from an “unexpected delay in a bank loan facility.”

“This delay is not to be blamed on anyone (neither person nor corporation), as financial proceedings can sometimes encounter unexpected obstacles and include complexities and lengthy legal clearance procedures beyond the initially expected scope,” the company contended.

“Although the management had explored all available options and done its best to avoid having to cancel any bookings, such cancellations could not be avoided anymore, if Atoll Paradise did not want to further disappoint its customers by leaving them stranded at the airport after their arrival in the Maldives,” the statement read.

“These actions, although difficult to make, were taken in accordance with the Booking Policy of the company, and all customers will be refunded with minimum delay,” the company promised.

Atoll Paradise said it was working with the Ministry of Tourism on “resolving these unfortunate issues so that all pending refunds can be processed without any further delay and normal business operations of the company can commence as soon as possible. It is important to note here that several refunds have already been processed prior to this decision by the Ministry. All customers are informed periodically on the status of their refund.”

Disgruntled customers waiting on refunds

Several of the company’s customers meanwhile contacted Minivan News following publication of last week’s article, with details of their grievances and extensive documentation and correspondence with the company.

The Barras couple initially booked their 14 night, US$24,698 holiday at Dusit Thani resort through Atoll Paradise in July 2012 for mid-February 2013. However three weeks before travelling the couple were forced to cancel their booking for medical reasons, and were promised a refund of US$23,113, including a US$350 ‘admin fee’ and five percent ‘bank charge’ on January 24, as a “one time exception”.

In a long series of successive emails, assorted company staff repeatedly apologised and promised repayment in several days, providing reasons including “It will take 1 to 2 billing cycles for the amount to be posted back to your account”, “I can only file for the refund request by Monday due to bank holidays here until Sunday”, and “we are moving all of our principal banking from three different banks to just one which is Mauritius Commercial bank.”

Several staff members informed the couple that Atoll Paradise had already paid the resort in advance, and was waiting for a refund.

The couple contacted the resort’s management directly, only to discover that the resort had never received payment from Atoll Paradise, and had cancelled the booking immediately on first request.

“The money you paid [to Atoll Paradise was not remitted to us, nor was there any communication regarding a refund since no monetary transaction had transpired between Dusit Thani Maldives and Atoll Paradise for this particular booking,” wrote Dusit Thani’s General Manager Desmond Hatton to the couple on April 9, 2013.

After waiting three months for the refund, the couple began to add their concerns about the company to others on Tripadvisor.

“Your case has been raised this with our Executive Management team, to try and get a better understanding as to when we can rectify this internal issue, as you know this has been pending a while and as such we are not delivering the exceptional service we are known for, this is very disappointing and I can assure you this matter is not being taken lightly,” the couple were informed in April by a staff member called ‘Laura’.

The Barras were then contacted by Atoll Paradise’s Director of Business Development, Chloe Esme Bagir, who informed them that “due to the extent of your unruly comments on the internet, it is now being dealt by our Legal and Accounts Department and will be reviewed in strict adherence to our published Booking & Cancellation Policy. We will reply to you once we get their decision.”

At the time of their contacting Minivan News, the couple were still awaiting payment of their refund.

“Since we didn’t go, the hotel didn’t get paid … so [Atoll Paradise] decided to keep the money for themselves. What kind of company does this?” asked Tristan Barras.

In an email to Minivan News, Atoll Paradise advised that Barras “cancelled shortly before arrival and thus lost 100 percent of the amount paid, in accordance with Atoll Paradise Booking Policy.”

Booking cancelled four days before flight: “I appreciate this will have come as somewhat of a shock”

In another case, Nitchima Chia from Thailand booked a two bedroom pool villa at Centara for six people on March 6-10 through Atoll Paradise, paying US$6,235 upfront via credit card.

Four days before the group was due to depart, having already paid US$3450 for flights from Bangkok to the Maldives, Chia was informed by Atoll Paradise that due to “unavoidable circumstances arising within our operations” their booking, among others falling between May 1-16, had been cancelled.

The company gave Chia the option to refund the full booking value, or reschedule the booking after July 1.

Noting that the group had days left to get on the plane and that the flights were non-refundable, Chia urged Atoll Paradise to move them to another hotel, or refund the full expenses of the trip: “July is impossible as the kids need to go to school during this time,” she said.

Atoll Paradise replied: “I appreciate this will have come as somewhat of a shock, however we are unable to honor any bookings within this period.”

“Atoll Paradise is in the process of relocating to a newly built office compound. This is a project we have been working on for the past 12 months to expand and grow our business. Due to this we are having difficulty in managing some our arrivals for this period efficiently,” the company wrote.

“Your booking with Atoll Paradise is cancelled and will not be reinstated.”

In another email, Atoll Paradise advised that “as only the accommodation is confirmed with us, we cannot hold any responsibility for the flights”, and urged Chia to contact her travel insurance provider.

Chia was initially promised a refund within four weeks with a “cut-off period” of eight weeks. However, on June 6 she was informed that the “refunds are taking a further delay due to lack of funding. We are confident we should receive these funds within the month of July. Please give us a little more time to settle this.”

On July 5, the company informed Chia that it understood this delay in your refund “is causing a lot of frustration for you”, and assured her that “the delay in your refund is not intentional.”

“The entire management team are working tirelessly to expedite the refund process for all our clients. Our bank has already agreed a facility for us, agreement already approved and signed. Due to lengthy legal documentation, the funds from our bank have taken longer than initially anticipated hence these delays. We anticipate the refund will be in your account end of this month and latest first week of August.”

Chia subsequently contacted the Royal Thai Consulate in Male.

Some customers, speaking about their experiences with the company on a 28-page Tripadvisor thread, reported success in securing chargeback payments direct with their credit card companies.

Police Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef meanwhile last week confirmed police had begun investigating the company over fraud allegations.

The Tourism Ministry has said Atoll Paradise’s permit will remain revoked until all alleged outstanding payments and grievances have been settled.


Tourism Ministry revokes permit of tour operator Atoll Paradise over fraud allegations

The Maldives Tourism Ministry has suspended the permit allowing local tour operator Atoll Paradise to take holiday bookings, following allegations the company – now under police investigation – has defrauded customers and international travel agents.

Tourism Ministry Senior Legal Officer Faseeh Zahir told Minivan News that the government had temporarily revoked Atoll Paradise’s licence to operate as a travel agent, and fined the company MVR 1 million (US$65,000).

“We have received several complaints from customers and foreign travel agents in recent months that bookings have been cancelled [by the company], but no refund has been given,” he said. “There are allegations of fraud and of the company not acting according to regulations. This is not just a case of one guest, we have received several complaints.”

Faseeh said that although the company’s permit to operate as a travel agent had been temporarily revoked, Atoll Paradise would still be required to honour all existing bookings.

“However, from today, Atoll Paradise is not allowed to take any new bookings from clients,” he said.

According to Faseeh, the Tourism Ministry has received several complaints of alleged fraud by Atoll Paradise over the last two months as authorities have sought to hold talks with the company.

He said the ministry had noted some “misconduct” by the company and decided based on complaints received to both fine and revoke Atoll Paradise’s permit until all alleged outstanding payments and grievances had been settled.

With the ministry not itself being an investigative authority, Faseeh added that police had also been informed of the Atoll Paradise case.

Police Chief Inspector Hassan Haneef confirmed that an investigation was now expected to begin into the company’s operations following the allegations of fraud.

According to Faseeh, any decision to return Atoll Paradise’s permit would depend on the outcome of the police investigation, as well as whether the company could resolve the complaints against it from clients and travel agents.

Award success

Atoll Paradise is one of the Maldives’ largest locally-owned tour operators, with the company in May winning several accolades including the Maldives’ and Seychelles Leading Tour Operator at the World Travel Awards (WTA) Indian Ocean ceremony.

The company was also awarded the title of the World’s Leading Luxury Boutique Tour Operator at the 2012 WTA ceremony.

Atoll Paradise’s office in Male’ was not responding to calls at time of press. The company had also failed to respond to email enquiries at time of press.

Ministry focus

The Tourism Ministry said today that Atoll Paradise was not the first local tour operator to have its permit revoked by the government over allegations of misconduct.

Ministry Legal Officer Faseeh said that ministry had last year revoked the license of one local operator accused of acting outside the law.

He urged guests intending to book a Maldives holiday through a local operator to be aware of their rights and ensure they had been provided with a booking agreement specifying terms of cancellation. Resort bookings in the luxury honeymoon destination can reach many thousands of dollars.

Faseeh said local tour operators were required to communicate and agree terms for cancelled bookings, as well as communicating them to the client upon confirming a booking.

He added that guests wishing to seek clarification on a booking or travel agency could directly contact the ministry or industry body, such as the Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO), via e-mail.

Any complaints against a tour operator could meanwhile be registered through the Tourism Ministry’s website here.