Aito is demanding firms that sell packages illegally in the UK be prosecuted having secured the backing of the UK’s leading Trading Standards expert.

The association will demand a crackdown by Trading Standards and the government supported by new legal advice from Jonathan Kirk QC, who edits a consumer law guidebook for lawyers.

He has endorsed Aito’s view that the Package Travel Regulations (PTRs) make it illegal for operators based outside of the EU to offer packages to UK-based customers without taking the full legal responsibilities of a tour operator.

The Trading Standards heavyweight has also agreed with Aito that UK-based advertising platforms and third parties targeting customers online or at consumer shows are “aiding and abetting” the illegal trade.

Aito chairman Derek Moore said firms have been able to “cock a snook” at the law because of the challenges Trading Standards has enforcing the law on non-EU firms. The new legal opinion will be used to put pressure on the authorities to act.

Moore said 2018 would mark the “end of the line for illegally operating traders from outside the EU”. New PTRs coming in in July will clarify the law and require non-EU firms to offer financial protection.

The PTRs cover both licensable sales – including flights and those covered by Atol – and non‑licensable, which excludes flights but still come under UK laws governing consumer rights and liabilities.

Moore said: “We knew these activities were illegal, but we wanted to find a more effective way to ensure the rules could be enforced.

“In particular, we thought more could be done to hold the UK companies who make money from this illegal trade responsible.

“We were right. There are clear pathways that can be used to prosecute intermediaries.”

Moore added: “People should certainly be able to buy their holidays wherever they choose.

“If you prefer to search online to find a local tour operator in say Peru or Vietnam, then that’s fine – you have made a conscious decision to do so without the consumer protection systems that you can rely on in the UK.

“Illegal traders from outside the EU go beyond that, by advertising directly to consumers in the UK.

“The consumer rightly expects that advertisers have to meet certain standards, one of which must be to abide by the law.

“They do not realise that the law is currently not being enforced and that no UK standards are being applied to such illegal traders from outside the EU.”

Aito believes the potential scope for a crackdown in illegal trading in the UK is wide.

“If you help one of these third-country traders break the law – for instance, if you take money for advertising or any other type of promotion directed at the UK market, such as an exhibition stand at a consumer event, for example – then you are profiting from this trade and you could be prosecuted,” Moore said.

“It might be a defence to say that you were not aware that your advertiser or exhibitor was illegal, but it seems obvious that almost any tour operator based outside the EU will not provide the protection that UK consumers must have.

“In any event, that defence evaporates the moment you find out that the advertiser or exhibitor is likely to be non-compliant and you continue to accept their business.”

The imminent tightening of the law on package travel sales with the introduction of new Package Travel Regulations is also set to make the legal position clearer, says Aito.

Moore said: “It will no longer be possible to evade the protection required in the UK by claiming you are just an agent for these illegally-operating outfits.

“And, tucked away in the regulations, is a special provision that compels any organiser outside Europe to provide full financial protection for their UK customers as soon as the organiser begins to direct activities to the UK.

“The level of financial protection required by the regulations is very difficult to provide if you do not have a proper presence in the UK.

“Travel agents should be aware of the onerous responsibilities that they are, probably unwittingly, taking on if they market such non-compliant overseas-based companies’ wares”.