A senior industry figure has denounced Abta for “dictating company policy” on Foreign Office advice as two major companies quit the association.

But Abta head of membership and financial services John de Vial warned the industry: “We move away from this at our peril.”

The division in the sector over Abta’s requirement that members cancel holidays and refund consumers when the Foreign Office (FCDO) advises against travel to a destination saw the UK’s two largest online travel agents (OTAs) On the Beach and Love Holidays resign from Abta this week.

Leading industry accountant Chris Photi, head of travel and leisure at White Hart Associates, hit out at the association saying: “I don’t think Abta should dictate a company’s Foreign Office policy.”

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Speaking on a Travel Weekly Future of Travel webcast, Photi said: “You have airlines saying ‘We’re carrying on flying’, but tour operators have to honour the FCDO advice not to travel.

“That isn’t what the law says, that is Abta’s policy. Abta is trying to protect the brand as something consumers can rely on.”

Photi argued: “Abta is a club. It’s entitled to have its rules. And if you want to be a member of the club, you have to abide by the rules. But I don’t believe Abta can dictate that from a legal perspective.”

However, de Vial told the Future of Travel summit: “There is real danger in trying to unravel 30-plus years of the way we’ve looked at Foreign Office advice even if we don’t agree with the application of it in this pandemic.

“If consumers feel government guidance is sacrosanct, as it has been up to now, I would be wary of trying to unravel that.”

De Vial insisted: “The Abta logo stands for consumer confidence.  That is fairly fundamental. It may or may not be the legal analysis aligns with that when the courts finally get to this. But our board, representing the members, has taken the view it is fundamental.”

He said: “It’s extraordinarily difficult for everyone in our industry at the moment, but it’s important to look to the medium and longer term on this.

“We all have questions about FCDO travel advice at the moment. But it’s a system that has served our industry very well over the years.

“Scratch the surface on the alternatives – companies or sectors making their own decisions – and just imagine we individually start to produce risk assessments, and those risk assessments are disclosable and challengeable for liability and travel insurance. It would be absolute chaos.

“So for all its faults and limitations, we have to respect government advice, and we have to rely on it to get it right at least most of the time. Then we can stand behind the decisions we make. We give that up at our peril.”

Stephen Mason, senior counsel at Travlaw, told the summit: “The way the courts in this country have always approached this is that a holiday contract is special. If you buy a holiday and it doesn’t work for any reason, you will be entitled to compensation for the disappointment.

“Merely saying a hotel is open and the flight is operating is not enough. There has to be a possibility for consumers to have enjoyment and freedom from stress. If consumers say, ‘We don’t want to go, we want to exercise our rights under the Package Travel Regulations’ they have a strong case.”

Mason argued: “Is the performance of a package seriously affected if a flight is still operating and the hotel is still open, but the FCDO is advising against travel to the destination?

“If the package is affected, consumers are entitled to a refund. My view is the performance of the package is affected. But we need the courts to make definitive rulings on this.”