Two 22-year-old Australians who say they were sexually harassed by their tour manager on a Contiki trip claim the youth travel company seriously mishandled the allegations and were “gaslighting” their complaints.

It all started on the second day of Shannaye and Hillary’s three-week Contiki tour around Europe earlier this year. By the end of that night, Shannaye and Hillary told Hack they felt the trip was pretty much ruined.

The tour group were at a bar in Paris with their tour manager – who essentially runs the tour and organises all the activities and logistics – when Hillary says she noticed the tour manager was being “touchy” and groping some of the girls on the trip.

“He was winking at girls, he was whistling at them dancing and stuff like that,” Hillary says. “Then he ordered me a shot, but didn’t get anything for himself. And immediately that made me feel a bit wary. That was odd to me that he wouldn’t get anything for himself.

“Honestly I normally would yell at someone for doing that to me, but because he’s my trip manager I didn’t really know how to act.”

Hillary says she walked away, but the tour manager wasn’t far behind.

“That’s when he came over and picked me up. My dress was quite short that I was wearing, so when he picked me up my dress came up, and my ass was out. I was yelling at him, like ‘My ass is out, my vagina is out, put me down’. And then he like leaned in and was like, ‘oh who cares?’ and I said, ‘I care, put me down’.”

Shannaye says she was shocked to see that happen to Hillary.

“We were visibly uncomfortable, like I was yelling, ‘put her the f**k down, she is not ok’.”

After putting Hillary down, Shannaye said the tour manager continued to harass girls on the tour that night.

“He walked behind me and grabbed my behind. I hit his arm and said ‘don’t do that’, and he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ and winked at me.”

“Like they were gaslighting us”

The morning after, Hillary and Shannaye said they were feeling shaken about what had happened. One of the women on the tour confronted the tour manager about the incident; Shannaye and Hillary decided to try and lodge a formal complaint.

“We thought as soon as we complain and they hear this story, they’ll give us a new trip manager, and it’ll be fine,” Hillary says.

In an email to Contiki a few days later, Hillary wrote that she felt “uncomfortable and unsafe” being on the trip with the tour manager. Shannaye wrote in a separate email, “I don’t feel safe on this trip.”

Hack understands that Shannaye and Hillary then had a phone call with Contiki’s European Operations Manager.

In an email seen by Hack that followed the phone call, the Operations Manager said while the tour manager would remain in their position, the trip would operate “differently” from then on.

“I have instructed [your tour manager] to refrain from touching you in any way,” the Operations Manager wrote.

Hillary says it’s “ridiculous” that Contiki would have to specifically tell their staff to not touch their clients.

Do you know more about this story? Email mccormack.angela@abc.net.au

“You shouldn’t have to wait until something happens to tell the staff not to touch your travelers. It should be expected that they’re not going to touch you.”

The Operations Manager also wrote, “He is your Trip Manager and doesn’t have to be your best friend… you are in a safe environment and [your trip manager] is of no threat to your safety.”

Shannaye said this comment was particularly disturbing to read, and wrote back insisting that they felt they weren’t in a safe environment.

“In one of Contiki’s emails they said you should discuss this with him. You don’t tell someone who’s been harassed to go and have a conversation with their harasser.”

Hillary says she didn’t understand Contiki’s decision to not pull the trip manager from the tour.

“If I worked at a supermarket and went around grabbing customers bums, I would be fired on the spot. But somehow because he’s on a Contiki tour….that’s acceptable behaviour.”

In correspondence to Hillary and Shannaye, Contiki said there were “no grounds for a refund”, but did offer to place them on a different tour with a shortened itinerary and different destinations to the one they were already on.

Hillary and Shannaye decided to stay on the trip for the remaining weeks, but said they “resented” the tour and tried to avoid spending time with their trip manager where possible.

Shannaye and Hillary

Going public

In a post on Facebook last week, Hillary and Shannaye decided to open up about what had happened on Contiki a few months earlier.

“I believe Contiki neglected their duty of care,” Hillary wrote in a Facebook post. “Contiki sweeps sexual harassment under the rug,” Shannaye wrote in another Facebook post.

Their posts started to get thousands of likes, and hundreds of comments and shares. Other Contiki travelers started sending personal messages to share their own stories. Meanwhile, Contiki blocked Shannaye and Hillary on instagram.

That move pissed them off even more. “WE WON’T BE SILENCED” Shannaye wrote.

Soon after Hillary’s post started gaining more traction, Contiki got in touch with Hillary.

“They asked what I wanted out of this, and I said I wanted this man to be removed from his position, for an apology, and for them to review their policies. And they said if they do those things will I remove the post. And I said no.”

Contiki’s Managing Director in Australia then offered Shannaye and Hillary free counselling; they wrote that they accepted that the incident in Paris left Hillary and Shannaye feeling “hurt and distressed”, and apologised for what happened.

In a statement to Hack, John Veitch, a Director of Contiki in Australia said the youth travel company is investigating Hillary and Shannaye’s allegations.

“The safety and security of all of our travellers is at the heart of everything we do,” John Veitch said.

Contiki also confirmed they have a “formal review of our policies well underway”.

Hillary says while she’s now satisfied with how the situation has panned out, she’s disappointed that it took a viral Facebook post for Contiki to take action.

“I think the world is so sick and tired of hearing these stories,” Hillary said.

“The #MeToo and #TimesUp [movements] definitely empowered me to speak up and not let this go.

“For future travelers I really do hope that [Contiki] can sort this out, and perhaps they can be known as a company that sticks up for this type of thing and has a zero tolerance for it.”

If you or anyone you know needs help, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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