ATHENS – The overnight demise of the British travel agency Thomas Cook, one of the world’s oldest, stranded hundreds of thousands of tourists worldwide, including 50,000 in Greece and could bring losses of 500 million euros ($549.87 million,) the head of the country’s tourism confederation SETE said.
Greece has been on a record run of tourism seasons but many hotels, especially those on popular islands, rely on package bookings from Thomas Cook, including those that aren’t prepaid, causing hoteliers to fear devastating losses although the agency’s collapse came after the peak summer period ended.
SETE President Andreas Andreadis said Greek businesses need to be protected from the aftermath even as British authorities were scrambling to have flights repatriate citizens in the biggest operation of its kind since the end of World War II.
In a tweet, he said those should include an exemption from the payment of the overnight tax for Thomas Cook tourists and a lowering of the Value Added Tax (VAT) rate for tourist packages, said Kathimerini. “The government must realize the magnitude of the problem and take immediate decisions for support, to avoid the expected domino effect,” he said.
“Our tourism has never faced such a mega-bankruptcy until today. It is a difficult case, with huge costs and many consequences that require calmness and good cooperation from all sides.”
Andreadis also called on everyone working in the tourism industry to treat stranded tourists with “respect and generosity,” during the turmoil which has brought much consternation.
Greek Tourism Minister Haris Theoharis said extra flights were being booked to get the tourists back home, many from the United Kingdom but the most from Germany. Officials said the tourists, mostly British, were on the islands of Zakynthos, Kos, Corfu, Skiathos and Crete, hitting an industry accounting for about a quarter of Greek economic output, said Reuters.
Thomas Cook ran hotels, resorts and airlines for 19 million people a year in 16 countries but its executives face a grilling in the UK about how it ended so suddenly and without warning to people who had booked packages on its own planes.
“There has been a rescue plan, a plan of repatriation currently underway,” Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis told Reuters. “We are supporting as much as we can,” he said, adding that the Greek authorities had a contingency plan.
“Extra flights have been booked at Greek airports and already the first 15 have come to ensure those people go back smoothly to their homeland. Also, the cost of their stay for the rest of their holidays is being covered,” Theoharis said.
About 22,000 tourists were expected to return home at the end of their holidays, with the rest returning after seven to 10 days, he said. The head of Greece’s hotel federation said it’s a severe economic blow to them. “The situation is quite difficult. It does not affect just British tourists but other nationalities as well,” Grigoris Tassios told state television.
Many hotels were expected to take losses on payments affecting vacation packages for the last two months, meaning “many millions of euros,” he said. “Up to October 15, there are high occupancies, we will suffer losses from this segment, too.”
He said hotel companies would turn to the courts to try and recover money owed by Thomas Cook. “This is an earthquake on a scale of seven, now we are waiting for the tsunami,” Michalis Vlatakis, President of the Association of Travel Agents of Crete, told the Athens News Agency.
Thomas Cook was struggling with debts approaching £2 billion ($2.49 billion,) forcing it to enter negotiations with shareholders and creditors that came at least £200 million ($249.06 short of what was needed to keep the company running, the New York Times reported.
Before the collapse, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government would not intervene to save the airline, adding that doing so would create a “moral hazard” because the possibility of a government bailout could encourage other companies to take risks, the paper added.
Layton Roche and Natalie Wells booked flights more than a year ago from Manchester to the Greek island of Kos for their wedding and said they had been forced to improvise after the collapse turned their plans into chaos, the report added.
The couple had already paid about 4,000 pounds, or about $5,000, for alternative flights for themselves and some family members, and they were expecting to spend another £2,000 ($2,490) for their accommodation.
In August, with China’s presence rising in Greece, the Chinese investment company Fosun said it planned build a Mediterraean tourist market for Chinese visitors, through Greece, after agreeing to buy 75 percent of Thomas Cook’s tour operations and 25 percent of its airline business for 450 million pounds ($560.15 million.)
The group’s creditors – banks and bondholders – said they would put up a similar amount to buy 25 percent of the tour business and 75 percent of the airline business with Fosun seeing a potential bonanza for China’s growing interest in Greece and the European Union but there was no report what happened to prevent the agency’s collapse.
British Ambassador to Greece Kate Smith said some 17,000 Britons will be returned home by her country’s Civil Aviation Authority which lined up enough planes to do it over a two-week period.
“Right now the priority is for this large-scale repatriation process to succeed,” she said, adding that UK aviation officials were in touch with hotels that carry Thomas Cook packages to tell them that, “the cost of stay for guests affected by the tour operator’s bankruptcy has been handled,” without saying how.