A Tucson tour operator who sells prepaid excursions to Africa is facing complaints from 23 customers in seven states who claim they spent up to $4,500 each on trips that were canceled during the pandemic.
Some have recently contacted government agencies to pursue legal action after months of trying unsuccessfully to reach DSA Vacations to arrange refunds or new travel dates, their texts, emails and related documentation show.
Wilhelm Terrence Christian von Guilleaume, owner of Destination Southern Africa Inc. which operates DSA Vacations, said his 20-year-old Tucson firm is regrouping after COVID-19 caused massive disruptions for tour operators worldwide.
“COVID has already wiped out numerous travel companies, yet DSA Vacations has continued to keeps its doors open,” said von Guilleaume, 49, a native of South Africa who goes by Terry for short. His tour packages typically included hotel, airfare and some meals and tours.
DSA used to have an office on North Campbell Avenue but vacated in late 2020 according to the landlord who sued in May for $35,000 in rental payments allegedly still owed on the lease. The lawsuit was settled out of court last fall for an undisclosed amount, and von Guilleaume’s business now operates online.
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In interviews with the Arizona Daily Star, von Guilleaume at first maintained there were only five complaints against his firm — the first five the Star asked about. “Other than that we have an incredible track record,” he said.
The next day he was asked about 18 additional complaints the Star identified through online searches and agreed there were many more unhappy customers than those he initially acknowledged. He said he’s determined to make things right for those affected.
“Our goal is to ensure that every client that still wishes to travel does so without a hitch and those that are due a refund will be refunded.”
Many of those affected said they tightened their belts, tapped their retirement savings or worked overtime to be able to afford a trip to the continent their ancestors came from.
“It’s a dream to visit Africa. It really meant a lot to us as African-Americans,” said Mary Phillips, 60, of Delaware, a retired federal worker.
She and husband Neil, 72, a retired bus driver, are part of a five-member travel group. Each paid $4,500 up front for a March 2020 trip that stalled when international travel bans were imposed to stop the virus from spreading. Their trip was postponed twice and as 2022 approached, the group decided to cancel over fears of lingering virus variants.
Sarah Durham, a South Carolina travel agent who booked the group trip through DSA said the company agreed to refunds in an October email she forwarded last week to the Star. The email said refunds take up to 60 days, but six months later they have not materialized.
Durham said she’s tried a dozen times to reach DSA about the refunds by text, voicemail, email, postal mail and messages on the company’s social media sites. “I’ve been in the travel business for 20 years and I’ve never dealt with a company so unresponsive and unprofessional,” she said.
The Attorney General’s office wouldn’t comment citing a state law that bans early-stage disclosure of unverified consumer complaints.
No go in Morocco
Some DSA tours are promoted in niche publications such as African American Golfer’s Digest, a digital magazine that advertised a prepaid 2020 tour to Morocco for $2,200 a person. The trip still hasn’t occurred and may never occur, the magazine’s publisher recently said in a statement.
“I have strong reason to believe that this trip will not commence, as it appears that DSA Vacations has permanently closed,” publisher Debert Cook wrote. She said she reached that conclusion after six weeks of trying to contact the company to arrange new travel dates. Cook did not reply last week to a voicemail seeking further comment.
Janine Lewis of Florida, an analyst with the U.S. Postal Service, said she and three friends are part of a larger group of 12 people who prepaid for the Morocco trip.
Sara Courter of Missouri, a geospatial technician, said she’s part of group of six from Rhode Island, Colorado and Missouri who paid $4,500 apiece for a different 2020 trip to Zimbabwe and South Africa. She said they tried to contact DSA for about six months last year to arrange rebooking but did not get a response.
Courter and others said they are galled by DSA’s claim on its website that the firm has “A+ rating” with the Better Business Bureau.
Dennise Alvarez of the Better Business Bureau Serving Southern Arizona said DSA used to have an A+ rating, but the BBB revoked it a year ago because the firm repeatedly failed to respond to customer complaints. DSA now has a D-minus rating, she said.
Asked why he’s still advertising a positive rating that no longer exists, von Guilleaume said he neglected to update the website after the rating changed. He said the firm’s workforce is stretched thin since the end of a federal loan program for small businesses affected by the pandemic.
The corporation that runs DSA received two federal COVID-19 relief loans totaling $445,000 over the last two years — money the firm said was needed to cover the wages of its 13 to 15 workers, public records show. Only six are still on the job since the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans dried up, von Guilleaume said.
Those who remain are committed to satisfying clients and stabilizing the business until better days return, he said.
“I have personally forgone any salary or remuneration for over a year and will continue to do so until the travel industry returns to normal levels again.”
Courter, the Missouran who helped organize the Zimbabwe-South Africa trip, was not impressed by the owner’s pledge.
“At this point there is no way I’d want to travel with this company,” she said. “It feels like I can’t trust this company.”
Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or [email protected]. On Twitter: @AZStarConsumer