Who should pay for the possible bankruptcies of tour operators? To their colleagues, to travelers or to all French taxpayers? This is the equation facing the government, soon at the foot of a wall of 1.5 billion euros: that of the assets of tour operators. A wall that will rise at the start of the school year and could plunge agencies and, by extension, their main guarantee fund, already ruined by the bankruptcy of the Thomas Cook company.
The deadline, officially, does not worry the state; but its wait-and-see position worries the sector, which fears a domino effect and a lasting damage to its credibility. The threat was born on September 23, 2019. That day, the British Thomas Cook, pioneer of two centuries of organized travel, stunned the world of tourism by declaring himself bankrupt. Some 600,000 travelers must be repatriated, including 11,000 customers of the French subsidiary. The Professional Association of Tourism Solidarity (APST), the main guarantee fund for tour operators, including Thomas Cook, must compensate or organize the trip of 41,000 abandoned tourists.
Unlike plane tickets, organized trips or “packages” – flight and accommodation, for example – are guaranteed in the event of supplier default, under a European directive transposed in France in 2018. The operation could cost up to 42 million euros, half of which has not yet been paid: the APST is awaiting the whistle from the liquidator of Thomas Cook, which it believes should intervene in the coming weeks. The sum represents nearly three years of contributions for the association, which had never had to manage a disaster of this magnitude.
Aggravating factor – and proof, according to its detractors, of its lightness: the guarantee offered by Thomas Cook France was only a deposit from the parent company, deemed unusable by the British courts. And the bankruptcy took place at the end of the reinsurance contract taken out by the APST. AXA, which was to take over, terminated the contract on the day Thomas Cook went bankrupt. Since then, the APST has no longer found an insurer to pool the risks.
While some tourism players took advantage of the summer of 2020 to put their cash back on the water, this was not the case with tour operators, whose activity remained marginal.
The fall of the historic tour operator has emptied the reserves accumulated in recent years by the association. The sale of its luxurious Parisian headquarters, a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe – more than 20 million euros -, the absence of a notable loss in 2020 and the 30% increase in contributions will enable it to settle the Thomas Cook case. But the wave of bankruptcies born from the Covid-19 pandemic is yet to come. After several months of uncertainties, the State authorized the APST to continue its mission, despite the absence of the necessary prudential ratios.
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