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October 2021    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 47, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Did COVID-19 Cost You Money in Lost Reservations?

dive businesses keep money with the weakest excuses

from the October, 2021 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

COVID-19 has been a disaster for the dive travel business. In the spring of 2020, we wondered how any dive resorts and liveaboards in remote parts of the world would survive because running a dive operation is not cheap. Shortly before he died, Max Benjamin told us that his Walindi Plantation Resort in PNG employed 118 people. That was in January 2020, before COVID struck. That's a lot of wages to pay with no foreign visitors arriving.

With no international travel, most dive resorts and liveaboards closed down, if temporarily, pending better times. Many considered their long-term reputations and rolled over reservations for future years; some even issued refunds. But some just kept the deposits, even payments, and a few of these continued to operate for locals, despite divers from other countries prohibited from visiting.

We quickly began hearing tales of woe. A few months ago, we asked our readers if they'd lost any money from canceled bookings either because they could not enter the country or they were reluctant to travel.

Many who wrote us preferred to remain anonymous (and even wished to keep the offending dive operation anonymous). Some still hoped to get their money back one day, and others wanted to remain friends even if they were confident they had been stiffed. So, we'll honor their anonymity as we tell their stories.

The Dive Store as Travel Agent

In the U.S., many dive store operators are part-time travel wholesale booking agents, putting together group trips for their customers; they collect deposits, then forward all or part to their destination, and make all arrangements. And for some divers, that's caused problems when it comes to figuring out where their missing money went.

Sean Brady booked a trip with Deep Stop Scuba (Syracuse, NY) to Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon from Newark at the cost of $5500 per person. After Truk was closed to foreign visitors, the trip was canceled, and he was able to recover all but the original deposits of $500 per each of four passengers, but he's still chasing it. He says his emails, Facebook messages, and phone calls have been ignored, although the U.S. dive store still appears to be in business. Where is that $2000?

Another reader lost her $1500 deposit to her dive store booking agent when her trip to Cuba in May 2021 was canceled. Eight others also lost their deposits, with the only explanation being that it was non-refundable. "I felt shocked about losing their money on canceled trips, and I would love to be able to get a return for the deposit, but the reality is I have enjoyed trips with this dive shop. I probably will not take any more trips with them again after that one as I still have a bitter taste in my mouth."

"Many who wrote us preferred to remain anonymous."

Keep in mind, divers, there is often fine print stating a deposit is non-refundable, and the terms may vary. The possibility of getting a disease is never a refundable reason. But, the truth is, most of us don't read the fine print until we need to because we don't expect anything to happen, let alone a pandemic.

To get resolution, being a polite pest may help, as Vonna Roberts (Fort Worth, TX) learned. "I saved up for a surprise trip to the Philippines for my husband and me. I paid the dive shop (Aqua Trek in Fort Worth) in full in November 2019 for a September 2020 trip. I even got trip insurance coverage. COVID canceled everything. I was promised a future trip; however, the dive shop closed, the shop owner disappeared and wouldn't respond, and the insurance company denied my claim. I am out over $6000. It makes a person wary about taking a dive trip through a local dive shop anymore."

We contacted Vonna and shared information, so she kept trying to track down the dive shop; finally, after calling the owners' parents, she was able to get their attention. "A trip opened up that someone else was not able to go on. They are transferring most of my funds to that trip. It is now my anniversary/birthday present to my husband. Part of my payment they said they couldn't refund and are using toward a future trip as a deposit. They sent it to the Philippines already." For Vonna, persistence paid.

No Refund, Come Later or Lose Your Money

Many operators have deferred trips for a year or more, applying deposits or full payment to them. That works for some people, but not for others.

Amy Hagen from Adventure Scuba Center (Sparks, NV) says they booked Magic Island Resort in the Philippines and were to leave just a couple of days before lockdown in March 2020. "The resort will not give refunds, and it was rebooked for March 2021. The Philippines is still not open, and so now it's moved again to March of 2022. Families and living arrangements and age make it so some are now not able to go. They still are saying no refunds."

Orange Bay Hotel in St. Eustatius refused to refund Pamela Lemerand's money, saying it would roll her forward for just one year - but she could not go for at least a couple of years, so she has lost her money.

She also had a reservation at Little Cayman Beach Resort, which was canceled when the Cayman Islands government barred foreign visitors, and the resort is holding the money against a future booking.

Cayman Reef Divers has taken four dive boats and much of its staff to Turks & Caicos, where COVID-led entry restrictions as less restrictive. The parent business, which has operations on all three Cayman Islands, has expanded its horizons as a survival strategy, buying East Bay Resort on South Caicos. Apparently, those who had deposits at their Cayman Resorts, which included Cayman Brac Beach Resort, Little Cayman Beach Resort, and Cobalt Coast, are being redirected to South Caicos until the Cayman operations become active again.

Aggressor Tales

Are we surprised that Aggressor features in these tales of woe? It's about the toughest dive business anywhere for consumers to get a fair shake when a problem arises. Kathy Shettler tells how her trip on the Red Sea Aggressor II was booked for early 2020 and then rescheduled for July 2021. Due to opaque communications from Aggressor Adventures regarding COVID testing, the risk of traveling in the Middle East, and possibly getting quarantined in Egypt, the group decided to cancel for this summer. "Unfortunately, despite our requests and trying to work with them, the Aggressor company refused to give us refunds of $5000 plus, or allow us to reschedule, or to give us credits to any other trips/locations." Their response to our concerns was that "European divers are coming in the summer of 2021, so we should be able to as well."

In other words, as the world faces a pandemic that has so far killed 4.55 million people, you 11 Americans are weenies.

Kathy is keen to point out that for all the other trips scheduled by her particular dive shop, Aggressor was the only company to prove difficult.

Regarding the Aggressor fleet, keep in mind that most of their boats are owned by independent operators, so don't expect them to shift a financial burden to another craft; in reality, your deal is with a specific boat, not the fleet.

Owen Poole dealt directly with Aggressor Adventures in Augusta, GA, booking a trip to Cocos Island on the Okeanos Aggressor II, departing December 2020. When he and his partner arrived at Punta Arenas, Costa Rica, they were denied boarding because they had not taken the PCR test required. Poole says the requirement had not been mentioned in the Know-Before-You-Go information sent by Aggressor. Unable to get any satisfaction from Aggressor, he spent another $500 of good money after bad by hiring an attorney in Atlanta when he returned home, but he was unable to get a refund. But, while in Punta Arenas, thanks to the MV Sea Hunter, they were able to buy a substitute trip, slightly delayed while they got the required tests.

As a tip to all travelers, COVID testing requirements vary from country to country, business to business, dive operation to dive operation. And, the requirements can change overnight, making international travel chancy. You need to research the requirements thoroughly, even government requirements, right up to the day you depart.

Seven Seas Seizes Funds

Mary Carney, a subscriber from New Zealand, paid a $2000 deposit to the Indonesian liveaboard Seven Seas in July 2019 for a November 2021 trip. Because entry to Indonesia had become prohibited, Seven Seas canceled the trip, so she asked for a refund. Mary told us that Seven Seas replied, "In regards to request for partial refund, basically our policy requires that we retain half of your money and other half to be rolled over to replacement trip. The next Forgotten Island availability is in 2023 as we are fully booked for 2022." What? Their policy "requires that we retain half the money?"

Unable to make that trip, Seven Seas eventually said it would permit her to transfer the remaining half to someone else. She says she is "disappointed in the Seven Seas approach as she has been with them several times before . . . I understand it is extremely tough for these boats, and would have been willing to donate some of the deposit. Retaining 50 percent as a penalty and not refunding any money but transferring it to another trip is not a good way to encourage divers."

Another subscriber from Australia, along with three others, was booked onto the Seven Seas for back-to-back trips in March/April 2020. Same story: " Seven Seas has rescheduled us for 2022 and has provided us with an invoice for 50 percent of the original cost: Our trip was going to be the last hoorah and has left us extremely disappointed. The Seven Seas team has not kept us up to date and reimbursed us for the internal flights. To say we are bitterly disappointed with the Seven Seas is an understatement."

We think she is being very kind regarding an absolutely unreasonable and selfish policy. And there are more examples of guests who Seven Seas unilaterally decided should share their pain.

"In the E.U. travel agents are legally bound to protect a consumer's money with an ATOL bond."

A reader we'll call George booked three trips in 2020 and 2021 and paid a one-third deposit, and the Indonesian ban on foreign visitors shut down all three. He lost around $6000 - and he says friends who had chartered the entire boat lost a lot more when Seven Seas unilaterally announced that all those who booked on trips that were either canceled or rescheduled would lose half of their deposits. "We would have been glad to 'donate' this 50 percent or maybe even 100 percent of our deposits to support the out-of-work hard-working crew members on the boat - however, neither we nor any of our friends were happy having it forced down our throats."

Remarkably, he still intends to dive with Seven Seas again.

You're Better Off in the E.U.

Most Americans have little recourse when they get stiffed by an overseas operator. However, travel companies in the European Union selling vacations with more than one element (e.g., flights, accommodation, and diving) are legally bound to protect a consumer's money with an ATOL bond if the operator cannot provide the services and refund the money.

Since 2014, and before the U.K. pulled out of the E.U., Ladonna Idell, who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, booked many trips through Equator Diving in the U.K. ( She says they run a lot of charters, "so I come in contact with people from all over the world." When Dive Into Ambon closed and said there would be no refunds because they had no money, Equator Diving covered the deposit, as it did for many other dive operators that did not survive the COVID crisis. They recovered and transferred deposits to future trips, of which Ladonna, who is quite a traveler, made or has scheduled - fifteen, in fact. Her money was always safe. Unfortunately, due to Brexit, the U.K. is no longer under E.U. laws that protect travelers, but most operators are still bound by CAA rules and are still ATOL bonded.

E.U. laws seem to apply to this case, but we must wait to see. Randy (as we will call him) booked a Komodo trip with the Siren/Master Fleet for August 2020, through Dominick Macan at (based in France) pointed out to him that conducts its business from the Netherlands, and under European law it is required to give Randy a 100 percent refund; must then turn to the Siren/Master Fleet for a refund or credit.

Angela Nordin of, a busy U.K. dive tour operator, confirmed this. However, may argue they sell only one element of a vacation, and so the rules don't apply.

And so far, Randy has no refund. When COVID hit, Randy asked for a refund, but prevaricated, saying they were contacting Indo Siren. His only option was to reschedule for 2021, but that trip was canceled. When he rescheduled again, he was shocked to find the price had increased by $1625 because the original booking had been at a "special price." Randy is still battling for a refund.

Note to Subscribers: Do you have any problems with Here's a link to the law that requires that they refund your money for COVID cancellations and who to complain to if they haven't.

Will Those Left Standing Survive?

If you haven't lost money for a trip canceled by COVID, you still have to sweat it out, says Cindy Caldwell of Harry's Dive Shop in Metairie, LA. "We booked a trip to Misool, Raja Ampat, Indonesia, for 18 people for October 2020, and the resort promised credit for the future. We rebooked for October 2022." Because of how her business must plan, she says, "If Indonesia is not open and moving forward, we will need to reschedule another year or two out from 2022. Our fear is whether or not they will be in business when the time comes."

And that remains the unknown. Many companies remain in dire straits, and let's hope that they can get back on their feet honorably. Keeping half a trip payment, as did the Seven Seas, because COVID arrived is no way to build future business. And to survive, dive operators must rebuild their relationships.

-- John Bantin and Ben Davison

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