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Youth-Travel Trade Group Is Launched

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Troubled by several well-publicized accounts of school groups swindled by unethical tour operators, a group of travel companies has organized a trade association to promote professionalism within the student-travel industry.

With the formation of the Student and Youth Travel Association of North America, or SYTA, the group's 22 founding members--all travel companies that cater to students and young people--said they hope to raise awareness of the many options available to student travelers and highlight companies that conduct their business with integrity, said Bruce Bitnoff, the association's president.

"When a student gets stranded, it's newsworthy," Mr. Bitnoff said. "But we want to present student travel in a positive light. There are good, ethical companies."

Sacramento, Calif.-based SYTA's members include Walt Disney Travel of Anaheim, Calif., and Educational Field Studies of Incline Village, Nev.

While SYTA members say plans for the association have been in the works for 18 months, its formation comes just four months after the May arrest of the owner of Zifi Trips, a student-tour company based in Cottage, N.Y. The owner allegedly stole about $1 million in deposits from school districts in New York and New Jersey that had paid the company in advance for spring field trips.

In another highly publicized incident, the Milestone Educational Institute of Cambridge, Mass., closed its doors in 1993 after accepting up to $10 million from students and teachers who paid the agency to plan their summer tours abroad. ("National News Roundup," June 16, 1993.)

Ethical Standards

Travel companies seeking to join SYTA must commit to a code of ethics. They must also prove that they are financially stable and able to offer consumer protection. Applicants must have been in business for at least three years, submit seven letters of reference from clients and colleagues, and have an insurance policy that includes a minimum of $450,000 in consumer protection should the applicant go bankrupt.

Some small companies charged that the membership requirements are too strict, Mr. Bitnoff said. "We have been severely criticized," he said. "But you have to have teeth to a code of ethics. We would rather self-patrol our members than have legislators do it."

The association also wants to make planning easier on trip organizers, and has produced a World Wide Web page and brochures that list services offered by its members, said Mr. Bitnoff.

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