27 September 2019

Brexit slogans and mantras
become meaningless in
the face of tourist crises

Thomas Cook’s collapse left 50,000 British tourists stranded in Greece this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

It has been said this week that it would have cost the British government the same amount of money to rescue Thomas Cook as is being spent on the operation to rescue stranded tourists in Greece, Spain and Turkey — Thomas Cook’s most popular summer destinations.

Thomas Cook’s bankruptcy could strike a devastating blow to communities that are economically reliant on package tourism. Greek commentators say the Greek economy is facing a disaster, and early estimates this week spoke of losses of at least €300 million.

Thomas Cook was the biggest UK holiday operator in Greece. It sent 3 million visitors a year to the islands, employed 1,000 people on the ground, and almost 50 Greek hotels had franchise agreements with Thomas Cook.

About 50,000 tourists were left stranded in Greece this week, with about 20,000 in Crete alone. The tourists, mainly British, were also on the islands of Corfu, Kos, Rhodes, Skiathos and Zakynthos, according to a Greek tourism ministry official quoted in the Athens daily newspaper Kathimerini.

Tourism officials likened the company’s collapse to a massive earthquake that would reverberate through the Greek economy.

‘It’s a seven-richter earthquake and we are expecting a tsunami,’ said Michalis Vlatakis, president of Crete’s travel bureaux and travel agents. ‘It’s not only the contracts of the visitors who have come and are now lost, it’s all those contracts that won’t materialise because people who were expected to come up until 10 November simply won’t travel.’

Manolis Tsakalakis, a hotelier in Rethymnon and president of a local owners’ association in Crete, told the Financial Times that hotel owners in Crete had not received any payments from Thomas Cook for the past two months.

‘Thomas Cook is one of the biggest tourism operators in Crete,’ he added. ‘He explained how most hotels in Crete have accumulated considerable debt to suppliers — ‘a million or two euros at a big resort, for example, or half a million at a smaller hotel.’

Scores of hotels and operators on Corfu, Kos, Rhodes and Zakynthos are owed money, and it is not clear whether will get it back. Two hoteliers told the Financial Times that the Atol protection scheme funded by the British travel industry would cover the bills for guests who were staying with them at the time of the liquidation announcement, but not for those who had already checked out.

Thomas Cook had 48 own-brand hotels in Greece and employed 1,000 to 1,200 people in Greece through a combination of in-destination customer support teams, quality management, contracting and hotel employees. Kos, Rhodes, Corfu and Crete were Thomas Cook’s most popular islands in Greece.

The company was regarded as one of the best employers in the tourist industry in Crete, where its hotels were part of a chain with hundreds of suppliers and small-scale tourist businesses.

Undoubtedly, bad management and failures to manage and control company indebtedness contributed to the collapse of Thomas Cook. But would it have been allowed to go so suddenly, causing a disaster for so many workers and holidaymakers by a British government that was no obsessed with ‘Brexit’ and all the shibboleths and mantras that go with that, including controlling borders, leaving Europe and the much-abused ‘Dunkirk Spirit.’

It is certainly not a government that is listening to the people rather than the privileged.

A choice of passports is becoming important for holidaymakers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But if a ‘no-deal Brexit’ goes through, I can imagine more nightmares unfolding, many with the most bizarre consequences.

The tourist season in southern Europe and the Mediterranean now continues into the first week or two in November. So, I imagine a scene like this after a ‘no-deal Brexit’ and after 1 November:

Now young, newly qualified policemen draw the short straw for the roster at the passport control kiosks at an airport serving many hotels and resorts. It may be on a Greek island … but equally it might be in Spain, Turkey or Italy.

They draw the short straws because it is the weekend, and find they are working the night shifts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, while their older colleagues enjoy the weekend.

A late-night flight from Stansted is late. When it finally lands, it is obvious most of the passengers have been drinking … after all, their departure was delayed, and it is the beginning of their holiday.

Some are in their sleeveless T-shirts as they get off the plane and line up at one of the two kiosks where our lonely pair are ready to check the passports. Needless to say, there is no-one among the women wearing a spider brooch.

They are about to present themselves at the one kiosk that says ‘EU/EEA passports,’ each shifting with just a little anxiety from one foot to the other. No-one is queuing at the other kiosk, ‘Other Passports.’

The first on the queue presents his passport. A few seconds elapses. It is inspected quizzically. It is put through a small scanner that refuses to read it and pushes it back out again.

A few minutes elapse.

The two young, sorely-pressed policemen look knowingly at each other.

Was that a suppressed smile or a grimace? Two heads nod back in the shortest and almost unnoticeable of reverse gestures.

‘Sorry sir, this passport says you are an EU citizen.’


‘But you are not.’

‘But this is my passport.’

‘Other queue.’

He shifts across, but is the first at the other kiosk.

‘Sorry sir, this passport says you are an EU citizen.’


‘But you are not.’

‘I am British.’

‘Do you have a visa?’


More fidgeting, more murmuring.

Finally a rubber stamp is taken out: ‘ADMISSION REFUSED.’

And so the process continues, slowly, for the next hour or two.

Nine people get through: two families who are Polish – and who faced racist taunts by some of the hooligans on the flight who kept calling out the names of Farage and Johnson; and the couple who had the foresight to apply for Irish passports earlier this year.

But over 200 people are left crammed into a small corridor, without air conditioning, and without any vending machines selling water.

The humour is lost when a call goes out: ‘Far queue.’

Meanwhile, inside the airport, their bags are rolling round and round the carousel with the clothes and packed water they so desperately need and thirst for.

And, inside the airport, another 200 people whose flight was delayed know their plane has landed, but cannot understand why they are not allowed to board their flight home.

It’s 2 or 3 in the morning, and 400 people now realise a British passport has become as useful as a passport from Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, Somaliland or South Ossetia.

The situation is tense. Temperatures are rising. The two young police recruits at the kiosk decide to call their colleagues in. There is a situation that is about to get out of control.

The older police who manipulated the weekend roster have been taught a bitter lesson.

And the ‘Leave’ voters on both sides of the airport begin to realise what it means when another country decides to take control of its borders without caring about the impact on European friends and neighbours.

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