Tour operator Thomas Cook in financial trouble

Industry analysts and anxious travelers expressed fears Tuesday for the survival of Britain's venerable tour operator Thomas Cook, after the company, which took more than 22 million people on holidays in the latest year, revealed its financial problems had worsened.

Shares in Europe's second-largest tour operator lost three-fourths of their already depressed value after the company said it was seeking new agreements with its main creditors, barely a month after announcing it had negotiated new funding arrangements to carry it through the slow winter months. The company insisted flights would leave as usual and that it was taking new bookings, but Britons who have bought holidays through the firm were worried.

Jamila Juma-Ware, 27, who has booked a holiday at Spain's Tenerife island in the next three weeks for herself and her mother, said she was "praying it's going to be all right ... but I'm not confident." Several small British travel firms have gone under since the global economic crisis hit in 2008, but Thomas Cook is an industry giant and a fixture of Britain's main streets.

"There are a lot of small independent travel agents around here, but I said I'd rather just book it through someone like Thomas Cook because they're big and there's more of a guarantee they won't go bust," Juma-Ware said. "And then this week this happens." Thomas Cook is, like many airlines and tour operators, suffering from weak consumer demand as Europe's financial crisis has people worried about their jobs.

Unrest in Egypt and in Tunisia _ normally the top winter destination for French travelers _ flooding in Bangkok and disappointing sales in Russia have all added to the pressure on the company. Analysts said the financial troubles could scare away customers, darkening the company's prospects.

"Legitimate questions will be asked as to whether Thomas Cook can survive long-term," said James Hollins, analyst at Evolution Securities. He added that he believes the company could pull through on the strength of businesses outside Britain, but "a more flexible financial structure and massive turnaround are required."

Thomas Cook Group PLC shares were down almost 75 percent at 10.41 pence in afternoon trading in London. On July 1, shares had closed at 134.5 pence. Thomas Cook was due to report annual earnings for 2010-11 on Thursday, but it has put that off indefinitely "as a result of deterioration of trading in some areas of the business, and of its cash and liquidity position since its year end."

Sam Weihagen, Thomas Cook's interim chief executive, insisted it was business as usual: "Flights are leaving on schedule, shops are open and we're taking bookings."

Weihagen said people who book package holidays will be protected by the Air Travel Organizers' Licensing insurance program which is funded by contributions from travel companies. However, those who book only flights are advised to buy their own travel insurance. The group has previously announced plans to reduce its fleet of 41 aircraft to 35, and it hopes to raise 200 million pounds ($312 million) by selling assets, including its stake in Britain's part-privatized air traffic control service.

Wyn Ellis, analyst at Numis Securities, said Thomas Cook's announcement could frighten new customers and alarm suppliers. The company, he said, "faces a difficult near-term future which could lead to significant loss of market share."

The news of the company's problems upset some prospective travelers near its shop in the St. James neighborhood of London on Tuesday. Tony Wright, 64, said he's had "nothing but good experiences" with the brand and would not hesitate to use Thomas Cook again. "We were devastated to hear the news this morning and we hope it's not as bad as it sounds," he said.

Others were disappointed the airfares had not dropped.On Tuesday, Simon Ash visited the branch hopeful that the combination of the company's financial woes and a lack of tourist interest in Egypt because of rioting there could help him find a cheap ticket to Cairo _ but he could not find one. "The prices they're giving me are not as good as the ones I'm finding on the Internet," he said.

Thomas Cook takes its name from the cabinetmaker Thomas Cook, who had a flash of inspiration while walking to a temperance meeting in 1841 to use the railways to help promote abstinence from alcohol. Cook's first venture was to charter a train which carried about 500 passengers in open coaches on a 12-mile round trip."Thus was struck the keynote of my excursions, and the social idea grew up on me," Cook later recorded.He organized more trips for temperance societies and Sunday schools. He took his business a step further in 1845 by arranging a trip to Liverpool, which included a 60-page booklet in the price of the ticket.

The International Exhibition in Paris in 1855 inspired Cook to organize a trip to the continent. Ten years later, he was organizing railway tours in North America.

Comments

  1. Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go; this is my station.

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