Tunisian hotels feel blow of Thomas Cook’s collapse

The result could be devastating for Tunisian hotels that already operate on razor thin profit margins.
Wednesday 25/09/2019
Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi gives a press conference in the capital Tunis on September 24. (AFP)
Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi gives a press conference in the capital Tunis on September 24. (AFP)

TUNIS - Dozens of Tunisian hotels face uncertain prospects after Britain’s leading travel group went bust earlier this week, leaving millions in unpaid bills. 

Thomas Cook, one of the UK’s largest travel agencies that provides package deals to destinations such as Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, and Greece, was declared bankrupt September 23, temporarily stranding some 150,000 holidaymakers overseas, including 4,500 in Tunisia, and raising concerns among partner hotels that receive its clients.   

The British government, through an insurance programme, took on the cost of repatriating its citizens and reimbursing hotels for losses after the travel group’s collapse. But questions remain over how — and when — Tunisian hotels operating with the group will recover some $66 million owed to them from July and August. 

Tunisian Tourism Minister Rene Trabelsi said the UK has ensured Thomas Cook’s debt to around 45 Tunisian hotels will eventually be paid off, and that soft loans would be provided to them in the meantime. But for many hotels that operate on razor thin profit margins, a long delay in payment, not to mention the loss of the tour operator’s business, could prove disastrous and jeopardise their business model. 

Fearing the worst after news of the tour operator’s likely demise began circulating September 21, one hotel in Hammamet blocked guests from leaving the hotel unless they re-paid for their trip, a policy they soon reversed and apologised for. 

Tunisia’s Tourism Ministry pledged that "no such problem of blockage will be repeated" and that it would work to “ensure that all tourists leave Tunisia in the best conditions."

Mark Redfern, a guest at the hotel, Les Orangers, said “it was a sorry thing that happened” but added he was sympathetic to hotel workers who were only acting on orders from higher up. 

“The actual staff and security here are so friendly. They had no choice in this, it was only management that told them to do this, from up top,” Redfern said, adding that he felt bad for hotel workers and contractors who now risk going unpaid due to the financial fallout.    

“I’ve had a fantastic experience (in Tunisia),” he added. “The service is second to none. It’s beautiful here. And if you’re planning on coming out, get on a plane and get out here, it’s lovely.” 

Tunisia’s tourism sector, of which the British market plays a major role, is a significant part of the country’s economy, contributing to around 14% of GDP annually. 

The industry has slowly bounced back after terror attacks in Sousse in Bardo in 2015 drove many visitors away.

Tourism officials said 2019 is set to a successful year for the industry, with the country on pace to receive a record 9 million tourists by year’s end.

Trabelsi, at a press conference in Tunis September 24, said he remained optimistic about Tunisian tourism despite Thomas Cook’s collapse and that the ministry was actively working to find solutions for affected hotels. 

“So far, all sides have been cooperative and we hope for a good tourism season for 2020,” Trabelsi said.