British holidaymakers have been “held hostage” at a Tunisian resort over unpaid bills by Thomas Cook amid fears of its imminent collapse.
Terrified guests revealed that armed security guards at Les Orangers in Hammamet locked the gates and barricaded every exit, warning they could not leave until they paid for their bookings.
Most refused to hand over any cash, having already paid Thomas Cook for their holidays, leading to fraught scenes as company executives met their biggest shareholder and creditors in London in a last ditch plea for a rescue deal.
If the tour operator is not granted a £200million lifeline, it is expected to go into administration overnight, leaving the government with an estimated £600m bill to repatriate some 150,000 holidaymakers in Britain’s biggest ever peacetime repatriation.
An emergency coalition of some of Europe’s biggest airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, is on high alert to rescue Thomas Cook customers if the company cannot be saved from collapse.
They will include those stranded in Tunisia, many of whom issued public appeals for help.
Ryan Farmer, from Leicestershire, who was staying at the Les Orangers, told BBC Radio 5 there was an announcement calling for all those due to leave the resort yesterday to go to the reception and pay outstanding fees.
"They told a lady, who is over 80, to pay over £2,000 and she had just come out of hospital. She had a fall over here,” he said.
“The owner and the staff locked the door, they don't let anybody out and don't let any coaches in until they are paid. I’d describe it as exactly the same as being held hostage.”
Claire Simpson, who was due to fly home to Manchester last night, told The Sun three coaches that arrived to take travellers to the airport were turned away by staff.
“Les Orangers have locked the gates to the hotel and are keeping people hostage,” she said.
"They are claiming Thomas Cook hasn’t paid them, so are demanding that we pay them.”
Other guests said staff had “barricaded the exits” to prevent people leaving and switched off the WiFi.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, insisted their were contingency plans in place for if the company collapsed and that travellers would not be stranded abroad.
But he appeared lukewarm on the prospect of a government bailout for the firm, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We would wait to see and hope that (Thomas Cook) can continue but in any event, as you would expect, we’ve got the contingency planning in place to make sure that in any worst-case scenario we can support all those who might otherwise be stranded.”
One industry source cast doubt on the Government's repatriation plans, warning that spare aircraft were in short supply and that passengers would face major delays and could be “turfed out” of their rooms by hotel managers
“'This is a doomsday scenario, but you could see tourist hotspots effectively turned into refugee camps,” they told the Mail on Sunday.
A potential failure of Thomas Cook, which flirted with collapse eight years ago, will lead to questions about management’s decision to pile new loans on the company’s balance sheet despite going through a painful restructuring.
Total debt has risen to £1.6bn from £1.2bn in 2011. Since merging with MyTravel in 2007, the company has paid £1.1bn in interest payments.
Multimillion-pound bonuses that have been awarded to top executives over recent years are also likely to come under scrutiny.
Peter Fankhauser has been paid £8.3m in the four years he has been chief executive, including a £2.9m bonus in 2015 under an incentive plan signed off in the wake of its 2011 rescue. Former finance chief Michael Healy was paid a £2.4m bonus in the same year.
A Thomas Cook spokesman said: “We are aware that a small number of customers were asked to pay for their hotel room before leaving Les Orangers in Tunisia yesterday.
"This has now been resolved and customers flew home as planned. We continue to support our customers in all our resorts.”