BEIRUT: More than a thousand Lebanese were reported to be stranded in various locations in Turkey Thursday, after booking vacations through the unlicensed Lebanese travel agency New Plaza Tours. Some local media outlets have stated that as many as 5,000 tourists are stuck in Turkey after the agency allegedly issued fake plane tickets and hotel reservations, but President of the Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies Jean Abboud has estimated that the number is closer to 1,500.
Several of them have called the media with their stories, saying that they have nowhere to go and have had to sleep on hotel and airport floors.
A handful of employees from other agencies who purchased hotel and flight deals for clients through New Plaza Tours stood outside the agency’s closed office in Tayouneh Thursday, waiting for answers.
All of the company’s branches are now shut and no one at the agency could be reached for comment.
“I have 21 clients in Istanbul who are stuck at the airport,” said Bilal Farhat who works at Miqat, a family-run travel agency.
Many smaller agencies in Lebanon have worked with New Plaza Tours, owing to its cheap rates, which are made possible because it operates charter flights.
“I was shocked to find out that New Plaza was unlicensed. Travel agencies are supposed to have licenses to operate a charter,” Farhat added.
Fatima al-Hajj, an employee at Attar Travel agency shared a similar story. “I have clients in Marmaris who arrived at their hotel at 7 p.m. last night. The hotel turned them away and said they were not permitted to stay until it was paid by the agency ... I had to find them another place to stay,” Hajj said.
Twenty-five-year-old Noha Akoum purchased a vacation package from Beirut to Antalya, then on to Istanbul, via New Plaza, but has been unable to reach anyone to confirm that her booking is safe.
Akoum, who paid in two installments, said that her trip, which she also booked for her family members, cost approximately $4,000.
“No one is answering the phone. We tried all the locations. We just want to know how we’re going to get our money back,” she said.
A video, shot earlier in the day and circulated on social media, showed relatives of the stranded tourists gathered inside a New Plaza Tours office, confronting an employee.
“This isn’t my fault,” the employee shouted at one of the women demanding answers.
“If this isn’t your fault, then why are you answering? Whose fault is this?” the man recording the footage could be heard asking.
“Fawaz, the owner,” the employee responded.
Fawaz Youssef Fawaz of New Plaza Tours is believed to have left the country. This is not the first time that clients of his agency have run into problems, according to Abboud.
“There were 500 or 700 cases last summer,” Abboud said.
Earlier in August, local channel MTV reported that 350 tourists were stuck at Rafik Hariri International Airport after two flights to Antalya and Dalaman - belonging to Atlas Global and operated by New Plaza Tours - were not permitted to enter Lebanon, because the agency had failed to pay fees to Civil Aviation.
However, Abboud did not place the responsibility on the Tourism Ministry to regulate agencies without licenses. He said that it is up to clients to ensure that the agency they are working with is accredited by the Tourism Ministry and approved by the International Air Transport Association and the Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies.
“New Plaza doesn’t have a license as it is not accredited by the Tourism Ministry ... Most of the agents and offices working with them were warned by the ministry ... [Fawaz] is not a member of our association,” Abboud said.
When asked how an agency with such a track record could still operate without a license, Abboud responded, “This is Lebanon ... our laws need to change.”
Tourism Minister Avedis Guidanian could not be reached for comment.