Her own words are reproduced here by kind permission of the Wall Family
Wall & Others v First Choice - A David & Goliath Story
Brenda was The Founder and former Managing Director of HolidayTravelWatch and created the Organisation in 1995, following her own Holiday from Hell. Brenda worked tirelessly for the benefit of the travel consumer and to highlight the failings of the travel industry. Brenda sadly passed away in early 2005 following a long illness. She would want her story visible so that others can read and relate to her own experiences.
It is stressed that this story reflects the position with her holiday and the destination at the time of her writing this article and does not reflect the current situation with the destination or travel company - this is a time-relative Consumer experience in her own words which may hold some resonance with other Consumer experiences today:
"I make no apologies for the length of this topic. I feel it is important that if you are interested you will then understand the reasons behind me setting up the National Consumer Organisation. Only then will you realise why I am so committed, passionate and dedicated to the work and why I will always endeavour to meet the Aims and Objectives by 'Putting Holidaymakers First'.
It all began in 1994, when my husband and I decided to take a holiday of a lifetime to a small island in the Caribbean called San Andres to celebrate my 30th Wedding Anniversary. The holiday had been shown on the ITV program ‘Wish You Were Here’ only a few weeks earlier.
I will not be going into detail about all the horrors (these are listed below) of this holiday except to say that myself and my husband and [many other] holidaymakers experienced appalling conditions of hygiene and sanitation problems. Many holidaymakers returned home very ill with serious gastric illnesses. Nine highly Infectious Notifiable Diseases were diagnosed from many of the holidaymakers who went to the Caribbean island of San Andres. There was a long list of very serious complaints and perhaps the best way to illustrate the problems, would be for me to list them and then you can decide whether you think I and others were justified in bringing our claim against First Choice in the High Court in London.
The brochure said:
'a magical place that time has forgotten', 'there can't be many places left in the world quite like San Andres', 'if your dream is of a sophisticated island where you can relax, leave the cares of the world behind and enjoy the simple things of life, we have a holiday to make it come true' and 'it will give you a taste of something completely different and make your holiday truly memorable'
– it certainly did that!
• Inferior, substandard accommodation.
• No hot water for 14 days.
• Faulty air conditioning.
• Rooms flooded with water.
• Mould and mildew on walls and ceilings of our bedroom.
• Bedroom damp
• Toilets in filthy state, not cleaned and overflowing with raw sewage.
• Fleas and mites in the bedding.
• Urine stained mattresses.
• Smelly, dirty pillows.
• Rats, cockroaches, ants, scorpions and crabs in bedrooms.
• Exposed live electric wiring.
• Electric sockets hanging from walls.
• No wardrobes, clothes had to be hung from the curtain rails, other clothes were kept in suitcases.
• Hotel discharging raw sewage just six feet from open plan restaurants and kitchens.
• Uncovered dustbins filled with used toilet paper sitting next to the restaurant and kitchens.
• A large wooden shed at the rear of the open plan kitchens which smelled to ‘high heaven’ which contained a large number of black bags which were filled with the toilet waste and human excrement which were taken from guests bedroom toilets. Guests were not allowed to flush excrement or toilet paper down the toilet, you had to place used toilet paper into a rusty old bin.
• Maids who cleaned the toilet bowl with a cloth and then proceeded to wipe other surfaces including our drinking glasses with the same cloth she had just wiped around the toilet bowl.
• Food covered in flies, reheated, rehashed, uncooked and quite often luke warm with no temperature control.
• Vast majority of food which was in large containers was being kept warm because it was heated by one tiny night candle.
• Food such as pork, chicken, beefburgers and sausages were undercooked and often served cold and raw.
• Cats, dogs, birds, insects and flies in the restaurants.
• Filthy, dirty, unhygienic kitchens.
• Hotel beach littered in dog excrement and hypodermic needles. The hotel staff would rake the needles into a pile and then proceed to bury them along with the dog excrement into the sand.
• Everyone in the hotel was very ill. There was a nursing station open each day where a nurse would be treating guests for diarrhoea and stomach cramps and had been doing long before we arrived on San Andreas. Which means First Choice were aware of the problem long before we arrived.
• People were on drips in their rooms. Some were admitted to the local clinic which I have on good authority was not the cleanest of places. One man had to stay there for several weeks as he couldn‘t be moved and flown back to the UK.
• People were being treated daily by a resident nurse at the nursing station on the complex.
• Informed by First Choice rep that all the staff in the hotel had DYSENTERY - INCLUDING THOSE PREPARING, COOKING AND SERVING OUR FOOD.
• Dangerous excursions were undertaken by inexperienced staff.
• Aircraft bringing very ill passengers back to the UK every week and no investigations being carried out as to where these passengers were coming from or why they were so ill.
• The pilot did not notify the UK that he was bringing ill passengers back to the UK.
• Myself and my husband were extremely ill and at one point thought we would never return home. I remember thinking to myself that I was going to die. There is nothing more frightening than being ill in a foreign country, especially when no-one speaks the language, there is no basic understanding of hygiene, there is no hospital and the only clinic on the island is filthy, dirty and a danger to anyone who decided to accept any treatment there. I lost a stone and a half in the two weeks spent on San Andres and another stone after my return to the UK. On returning home to the UK, it was discovered many months later that there were thousands of people affected with illness, not just at the hotel I had stayed at, but at another five hotels that First Choice had on the island.
These are the 9 diseases we brought home with us to the UK from San Andres:
3. Amoebic Dysentery
4. Bacillary Dysentery
6. Aeromonas Sobria
7. Aeromonas Hydrophilia
8. Endolimax Nana
9. Vibrio Parahaemolyticus
Everyone wrote and complained and received the standard reply letter - 'we have had no other complaints'!!
At this point, I had contacted 400 other people who I had contact with and they were being told the same information, 'no other complaints'.
I paid £875 per person for this holiday. After many, many months of trying to resolve the complaint direct with First Choice, all they were prepared to offer was a derisory amount of £200 per person. I thought I was being very fair by not asking for a full refund. I even took off my airfare. I asked for £600!
Unaware of my rights as a holidaymaker, unaware of the kind of claim I had against First Choice and unaware of the kind of compensation I could recover for this kind of experience, I began to make further enquiries. These enquiries led to the first major Group Action 'WALL V FIRST CHOICE' in the High Court in London. The first action of multi party claimants against the Travel Industry. The much publicised claim was successful and was settled in an out of court settlement for undisclosed damages. First Choice's lawyers also made sure that we signed confidentiality agreements. They didn’t want the general public to know how much compensation we had been awarded. San Andres was an example of a tour operator’s failure on a scale and magnitude never seen before in the UK. 5,500 people were subjected to the horrors of San Andres.
I am glad to say that no tour operator has ever returned to San Andres and first choice pulled out of the destination 2 months after I and my husband returned home. First choice should have made sure that the infrastructure was in place before they decided to send unsuspecting holidaymakers to San Andres.
I hope that those of you, who read about my experience, will understand why I and others felt they had to be made accountable and accept their failures................we achieved this in the high court in 1997".