In the early hours of Monday morning, travel agency Thomas Cook announced it was closing after failing to complete a $1.1 billion rescue deal.
The collapse of the 140-year-old industry icon has sparked the biggest ever peacetime repatriation effort and left the travel plans of some 600,000 holidaymakers in tatters, prompting the industry to contemplating whether the future holds any place for travel agents.
Thomas Cook was a giant of the travel world, operating in 16 countries, employing 22,000 staff, trading through 600 high street shops and boasting its own fleet of planes and resorts in Europe.
Its collapse entirely eclipsed news of an Antipodean travel agency’s demise, and the ramifications for another iconic global travel agency.
Tempo Holidays and Bentours, owned by Cox & Kings, were placed into voluntary administration at the end of last week.
The holiday wholesalers issued a joint statement saying: “Tempo Holidays and Bentours (AUS/NZ) have been advised by Cox and Kings (India) that the company have been in recent weeks seeking investors/buyers with heavy interest.
“However, as this has not been materialised, as of today Tempo Holidays and Bentours are unable to continue operating in AUS/NZ.”
Industry insiders believe the demise of Cox & Kings, founded in 1758, is imminent following the sudden closure and a recent default on payment obligations.
Cox & Kings’ inability to repay debts and meet its financial obligations has been plaguing the company for some time now, and investors were told June that it planned to make good “through a combination of internal accruals and monetisation of assets”. Tempo Holidays and Bentours were reportedly among the assets the parent company was looking to sell.
In the last couple of months, according to Travel Weekly, there have been “industry rumblings” that both brands were struggling to pay their bills, and the cancellation of Tempo’s ATAS accreditation by the Australian Federation of Travel Agents only fuelled speculation of trouble at Cox & Kings.
“While today the staff have been dealt with the devastating news, Tempo Holidays and Bentours staff will be working with respective agents/suppliers and clients to assist in next steps once confirmed,” said the dual statement.
“It is understandably a sad day for all staff concerned along with trade. Tempo Holidays and Bentours have been wholesalers within AUS/NZ for over 30 and 40 years respectively, and have experienced great success and growth over recent years.
“We have had the pleasure in providing dream holidays for all of our customers. We are proud and thank all of our passionate and supportive staff for their contribution and dedication over the years.
“We also extend our deepest and sincere gratitude to all of our travel agents and trade partners for their loyalty and their continual support over the years.”
Holiday makers left to count the cost include Mark and Jenny Pearson, who told the ABC their once-in-a-lifetime $40,000 Bentours world journey from China, to Mongolia, Russia and beyond was not covered by their credit card travel insurance for insolvency situations. The couple will instead embark on a scaled down version of the trip without most of its anticipated highlights.
Hurtigruten cruises booked by Australian and New Zealand travellers between October and December 2019 will also be affected and Hurtigruten has created a dedicated response page for enquiries about the Bentours collapse.
“Hurtigruten will work closely with agents and clients to offer travel solutions and alternatives arising from the Bentours, Cox & Kings and Tempo Holidays collapse,” said Damian Perry, the company’s managing director for Asia Pacific.
While the impact of the far larger Thomas Cook collapse Down Under has so far been minimal, industry figures says it is still early days in evaluating the fall out.
Australian company Webjet, which had a commercial arrangement with Thomas Cook, is among the big Antipodean casualties. It will write off nearly $44 million owed by the travel agent and this week saw its share price tumble by 3.48 percent.
Tourism Accommodation Australia CEO Michael Johnson warned: “There are concerns that there will be some Australian hotels and tourism businesses who will be exposed as a result of the collapse, however it is far too early to tell to what extent.” A Tourism Industry Aotearoa spokesperson, meanwhile, declined to comment further than: “I’m not aware that Thomas Cook has a big presence in the NZ market.”
One of the largest local travel agents, Flight Centre, has dismissed speculation about the sector’s demise in the wake if this week’s events, arguing the collapses happening within the space of a few days is coincidental.
Managing director Graham Turner told ABC News: “I don’t think it’s an armageddon thing for the travel industry.
“It’s a real shame for an iconic brand like that [Thomas Cook] to go out of business. It’s a pity. But I don’t think it’s the marketplace. It’s the way they’ve been organised and run, and the amount of debt they have.”
Other industry experts say the sector must adapt to survive.
University of Technology Sydney tourism lecturer Dr David Beirman told news.com.au: “For a lot of people now, their idea of planning a holiday is to book flights online with a carrier and book accommodation with Expedia or other online companies.
“The old days when travel agents sold airfares aren’t here anymore because airlines aren’t paying the commissions they used to.
“Family travellers still want certainty and security; if you look at all the Aussies that go to Fiji, they will tend to book a package tour with a respected airline.
“But younger people and the grey nomads now have a greater tendency to be independent travellers.
“If you want to do a ten-country tour, that’s something that doesn’t lend itself to booking on the internet and the market for that kind of travel is significant.”