NOTE: This story has been updated since it was first published to include additional statements from Sunwing and Blue Diamond Resorts, and to reflect that Sunwing Travel Group is the parent company of both Sunwing Vacations and Blue Diamond Resorts.
A GTA woman says her ordeal at a Cuban vacation resort is highlighting the lack of recourse Canadians have if they are sexually assaulted while staying at a resort.
On Dec. 14, Emily and her fiancé embarked on a getaway they booked with Sunwing Vacations at the 3.5-star Memories Varadero Beach Resort in Cuba.
CityNews is only identifying Emily by her first name to protect her privacy.
The next night, the couple had a disagreement and Emily took some time to herself at the resort’s beach. She fell asleep on a chair by the water, and when she woke up, she said there was a man on top of her.
“He had one hand on my mouth and he was trying to get me to be quiet,” she said. “I felt his other hand up my dress, and he was trying to take off my underwear.”
She said she scanned the man’s face and realized he was a resort employee, as he was wearing the same t-shirt as staff. She said the man didn’t expect for her to be strong and sober when she began fighting back.
“I pushed him as hard as I could, I kicked him as hard as I could, and then I ran for my life,” she said.
The 29-year-old told CityNews she didn’t stop running until she got back to her hotel room, where she collapsed in the hallway without her room key. Another guest saw her and walked her to the front lobby where she said she placed an incident report. She was also reunited with her fiancé who had been out looking for her.
She said she told front desk staff, the customer service agent and the security guard what happened. Staff spoke Spanish and she said she had difficulty communicating with them, so she was asked to write everything that had happened on a piece of paper.
She also said she told staff members that she could identify the employee that had attempted to rape her, but staff didn’t offer anything to comfort her or to track the man down.
Blue Diamond Resorts, which owns Memories Varadero, told CityNews support was provided to Emily as soon as she filed a report with hotel staff.
“[This included] an offer to contact the police and obtain medical assistance,” the resort’s spokesperson wrote in a statement. “The incident was documented in a report along with our response.”
Emily and her fiancé decided they wanted to cut their vacation short, collect their things and leave the resort immediately. Emily said they went to their room and packed their things. When they came back downstairs, they say the reception staff talked them out of leaving.
“They told us to go back in the room,” she said. “In all of that commotion, we left my purse at the front lobby. It had our wallets, my cell phone, our passports, our tickets, the visas we had to fill out to get into the country, our insurance. Everything that was in the safe was in that bag because we wanted to leave.”
When she returned to the front desk, she said staff told her that her bag wasn’t there.
The following morning, Emily got a call from the security desk. The front office had their passports, which had been in a Ziploc bag secured inside her purse. The spokesperson from Blue Diamond Resorts told CityNews, the passports were turned into the hotel’s front desk after they were found on the beach, and they were returned to Emily without any conditions.
However, Emily alleges she had to give something up in return.
“They had our passports but wouldn’t give them to me until I had filled out a report, saying I wasn’t pressing charges,” Emily said. “I was literally in survival mode, I’ll do whatever at that point to get my passports.”
CityNews asked Blue Diamond Resorts if it was aware of the document Emily said she signed. The spokesperson said they were unwilling to release it without Emily’s consent. They also deny that Emily signed any documents under duress.
Emily said she then met with the head of security and Sunwing’s on-site representative to go over the remaining missing items and her assault allegations. She said they told her there wasn’t any proof she submitted a complaint the night before and there wasn’t any surveillance footage showing Emily at the front desk making a report.
Believing that there was no security footage, Emily and her boyfriend weren’t sure what to do. She said the Sunwing representative implied that without any footage, they wouldn’t be received credibly by police.
“Both of us felt immediately that something was being covered up,” she said, so the couple focused on trying to get back to Canada. Emily alleges that the Sunwing representative said that it would take days to make arrangements and would cost the couple, whose wallets were still missing.
The couple ended up leaving the resort without filing any reports.
Back home in Canada, Emily posted about her experience on TripAdvisor as a warning to other travellers. The resort’s general manager posted a response that implied Emily was rude to staff when reporting her assault. Their post said Emily’s characterization of events is unfair, that allegations of sexual assault are “treated by our staff with rigour” and “our highest value is the welfare of our guests.”
That post has since been removed, and replaced with a new message from management, which takes a different tone.
“We regret the original response you received on this platform and have since deleted our post,” the new statement reads. The general manager also invited Emily to contact the resort directly so they can give her the best possible assistance. Emily said she had already reached out to the resort multiple times.
The spokesperson from Blue Diamond Resorts told CityNews that staff documented Emily’s statement and provided support, but the chain admits following their correspondence with her, there may have been some issues along the way.
“After reviewing [Emily’s] recent correspondence upon her return home, there has clearly been a breakdown in communications and we are fully cooperating with all parties to ensure this matter is further investigated,” the email statement reads. “Memories Varadero has detailed policies in place to ensure that sensitive issues are dealt with swiftly and appropriately.”
CityNews asked for clarification and more details about those policies. We also asked if staff followed proper procedure when Emily filed the report.
“Our policy requires staff to provide support to anyone who comes forward with a complaint including assisting in filing a police report if the customer consents,” the spokesperson wrote. “In this case, our records indicate that we did offer assistance but we did not receive consent and therefore are prohibited from contacting police.”
We also asked the resort company on numerous occasions if the employee accused of sexually assaulting Emily was identified and what other actions have been taken. However, the resort did not address these questions.
The spokesperson adds that they are cooperating with local authorities in the event Emily chooses to pursue a police investigation. However, the 29-year-old said she is disappointed by the resort’s response because it isn’t an accurate description of what transpired on that night. She said she was forced to choose between calling police to file a report and getting her passports back so the couple could go home.
“The fact that it was completely disregarded and invalidated was like being re-traumatized again.”
“The fact that it was completely disregarded and invalidated was like being re-traumatized again, like someone saying it didn’t happen and you can’t prove it,” Emily says.
Emily and her fiancé booked their vacation via popular vacation company Sunwing, which provides vacation packages to Canadians looking for a sunny getaway. Sunwing Travel Group is the parent company of both Sunwing Vacations and Blue Diamond Resorts.
Deals for the Memories Varadero Beach Resort still appear on Sunwing’s vacation site, without any warnings to travellers.
Emily said she received little support from the Sunwing representative, and the airline took a considerable amount of time to get back to her when she filed a complaint online and over the phone, only emailing her back last week.
Sunwing declined to do an interview with CityNews, but provided a statement, apologizing to Emily for her experiences, and saying they will be launching an investigation into how “this was handled by our team in destination.”
“We have robust policies and procedures in place to deal with violence and sexual assault, including assisting customers with reporting incidents to the authorities, offering medical assistance, modifying travel arrangements and serving as a language interpreter if required,” Sunwing’s statement reads. “We want to underscore that whenever a guest experiences violence or sexual assault, our policy is always to accommodate their needs.”
The spokesperson also adds that there’s no record that Emily wanted to leave early, but there is record of her declining to speak with police or receiving medical attention, adding that their “destination teams” need consent to reach out to them. These are claims Emily denies. The airline said that will also be part of the investigation.
Sunwing’s statement ends by stating that the company has zero tolerance for sexual assaults, and if an employee is found guilty, they would be immediately terminated.
Since this story was first published by CityNews, Sunwing has provided additional comment saying that Emily “has expressed a desire to pursue the matter further. Our team will work to support her in advocating on her behalf with the hotel as well as facilitating the reporting of the incident to authorities, including Global Affairs in order to coordinate with the Canadian Consulate in Cuba. We are also available to assist with documentation or any other information required.”
They add that while they “have not received any requests to date from customers to alter existing travel plans to Memories Varadero, those who are currently booked to travel to this hotel and wish to change their reservation to a different, equivalently priced hotel can do so without penalty.”
A voice for change
Emily explains how in the moments she realized she was about to be raped, her mind quickly shifted back to a time she couldn’t fight back. She said it also happened while on vacation in Cuba.
When she was 19 years old, Emily said she was raped and she didn’t report it.
“I froze the first time, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t say anything, it just happened,” she told CityNews. This time around, when she woke up with a man on top of her on the beach chair, she fought back.
“I said, ‘Not again, this isn’t happening again’,” she said. “He picked the wrong person to try and take advantage of that’s for sure.”
As a survivor, Emily said she wants to share her story to give others strength. She has already posted a firsthand account of her story to social media and received messages from two women who say they were also sexually assaulted by resort staff down south. One woman shared that she was a minor at the time.
“I hope it empowers myself and other women that have been through it, and maybe encourages other women to speak about it and realize it’s not your fault,” Emily said. “No matter if you’re drinking, wearing a short dress, or if you went down to the beach by yourself, that’s not consent or invitation to be assaulted.”
Full statement from Blue Diamond Resorts Media:
We take the safety of our customers extremely seriously and sincerely regret the incident that [Emily] described.
As soon as [Emily] reported the incident to our hotel staff, assistance was immediately made available, including an offer to contact the police and obtain medical assistance. The incident was documented in a report along with our response. After reviewing [Emily]’s recent correspondence upon her return home, there has clearly been a breakdown in communications and we are fully cooperating with all parties to ensure this matter is further investigated. Memories Varadero has detailed policies in place to ensure that sensitive issues are dealt with swiftly and appropriately. Every guest at our resort deserves a safe and positive vacation experience and we are reviewing our records to identify any steps we can take that would prevent such an incident from reoccurring.
We are very sorry to [Emily] and are available to cooperate with her if she chooses to pursue the matter further.
Full statement from Sunwing
We wish to sincerely apologize to [Emily] for her experience and have made several attempts to reach out to her directly to offer our assistance. We have launched an internal investigation into how this was handled by our team in destination and would welcome the opportunity to speak with [Emily] directly to better understand how we can address her concerns.
Sunwing seeks to provide our customers with safe and enjoyable vacations and as an organization we are committed to responding to any complaints swiftly and compassionately. We have robust policies and procedures in place to deal with violence and sexual assault, including assisting customers with reporting incidents to the authorities, offering medical assistance, modifying travel arrangements and serving as a language interpreter if required. We want to underscore that whenever a guest experiences violence or sexual assault our policy is always to accommodate their needs. Unfortunately, we have no record of a request by [Emily] to return early. We will be reviewing this as part of our internal investigation into how this was handled by the team in destination.
We recognize that sexual assault is a global issue and we must do better to support victims. This includes educating and training our employees to respond with compassion and understanding. This commitment has prompted us to recently engage White Ribbon, a Canadian thought-leader on gender-based violence, to strengthen the capacity of the company and its employees to effectively address and prevent sexual violence, harassment and bullying. This engagement will include a review of existing policies and procedures to ensure a consistent approach to these issues. Our objective, in partnership with White Ribbon, is to work across the company towards awareness, prevention and zero tolerance of sexual harassment, violence and bullying.
With respect to your question regarding contacting police. Based on reports from our local team, when the incident was reported to our representatives, our records indicate that although assistance was offered to [Emily], she declined to speak with police or receive medical attention. Without [Emily]’s consent, legally our destination team is not permitted to contact police. We understand and support the need for victims to seek a resolution when they are comfortable doing so, including bringing perpetrators to justice. Sunwing remains ready and willing to cooperate with local authorities should she wish to reopen the investigation and provide consent to file a police report. We have zero tolerance for sexual assaults. If an employee is found guilty they would be immediately terminated.
Once again, we wish to sincerely apologize to [Emily]. Whenever she feels comfortable, we would welcome the opportunity to speak to her.