A travel agent is a professional who helps people plan and book their travel arrangements. Lawmakers regulated this profession early on to protect travellers from potential vulnerability, as they can be entirely dependent on the travel agent for the proper outcome of their trip. In 1937, at the time of the first paid vacations in France, the government decided to control access to the profession by creating a travel agent’s license, which remained in place until 2009 when it was replaced by a registration procedure. Today, travel agents can work in physical locations or online, and typically offer a variety of services such as booking flights, hotels, and excursions. They often act as a conductor or project manager, coordinating multiple tourism providers (airlines, hotels, restaurants and guides) and increasingly work in collaboration with the travellers.
The term “travel agent” is often associated with the historical figure of Thomas Cook, the British businessman who founded the first travel agency in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, the company of the same name became infamous for its high-profile bankruptcy in September 2019.
A multi-faceted profession
Travel agents are important players in the tourism industry, but their role is complex and does not correspond to a uniform legal category. They are typically described as an intermediary between the traveller and a tourism service provider, and offer services such as stays, airfare, hotels, and admission to cultural events, for a fee. They can operate in a physical agency or online as an OTA (online travel agency). Travel agents can provide various services, and the type of service determines the rights of the travellers.
- They can act on the request of their clients, for whom they are an agent, to find a service provider such as an airline. In this case, the traveller purchases the service directly from the provider, and the travel agent is not responsible if a problem occurs, such as a delay or overbooking. With the advent of the internet, this formula has declined as more and more travellers book their flights or hotels directly on the provider’s website.
- Alternatively, clients can turn to the agent to buy a package, which is a combination of services of at least 24 hours or including an overnight stay, such as train tickets plus a car rental. Whether the package is purchased from a pre-designed catalogue or put together according to the customer’s needs, the travel agent is considered as a seller of goods and services provided by others. In the eyes of the law, the travel agency is a retailer of a package organised by another professional. However, travel agents can also create packages by assembling different services and then selling them directly to travellers or reselling them through retailers. In this case, they are considered as organisers or tour operators (TO).
The travel agent profession is regulated by European directive 2015/2302 of November 25, 2015, which was transposed into the French Tourism Code by an ordinance of December 21, 2017. This Travel directive replaces the previous EU directive 90/314 of June 13, 1990. European law does not use the term “travel agent”, but instead differentiates between organisers and retailers. Although the French Tourism Code includes a section called “Travel agents and other operators selling travel and stays”, it does not subsequently use the term travel agent either. It is therefore out of habit or for the sake of simplicity that the tourism sector uses the term “travel agent”.
“Tourism plays an important role in the economy of the Union, and package travel, package holidays and package tours (‘packages’) represent a significant proportion of the travel market.” Directive 2015/2302, Whereas 2
Becoming a travel agent is regulated, in line with the European goal of protecting travellers. The French Tourism Code thus requires registration with Atout France (French Tourism Development Agency), which is contingent on meeting two conditions: having a financial guarantee that covers the risk of the operator’s insolvency and having insurance that covers the consequences of professional liability. The registration requirement, ratified by the French law of July 22, 2009, replaced the former travel agent license that was first established in 1937.
Whether the agent is a retailer or designer of a package, they are legally responsible for ensuring that the package is properly executed. The traveller can turn to either the agent or the retailer for satisfaction before and after the trip, and it is the retailer that is generally the primary point of contact. The liability for the package is legally binding and can be quite severe for French professionals. The customer does not need to prove that the agent or service provider is at fault (such as a flight delay or poor hotel amenities) in order to seek compensation. While European law does not impose this level of liability, France has chosen to provide strong legal protection for travellers. Other Member States have chosen to only hold the designer of the package liable.
- Directive 2015/2302 du 25 novembre 2020 relative aux voyages à forfait et aux prestations de voyage liées: articles 2 et 3.
- Code du tourisme : article L. 211-1.
- Lachièze Christophe, 2020, Droit du tourisme, Lexisnexis, 288 p.
- Lachièze Christophe, 2018, «Les agents de voyages et autres intermédiaires du tourisme à l’ère numérique; à propos de l’ordonnance n° 2017-1717 du 20 décembre 2017», JCP, p. 100.