BEIRUT: Hundreds of Lebanese tourists who were stuck in Turkey after booking vacations through an unlicensed travel agency returned to Lebanon over the weekend as a report surfaced that the agency’s owner had been arrested in Damascus.
Voice of Lebanon (93.9) reported Sunday that New Plaza Tours owner Fawaz Youssef Fawaz had been arrested in Damascus by Syrian security and transferred to an investigation center.
However, The Daily Star was unable to independently verify the information. Fawaz is believed to have absconded from Lebanon.
The stranded tourists, meanwhile, began to return over the weekend. Saturday, 173 passengers arrived at 6 a.m. from Dalaman airport in Turkey, followed by 203 from Antalya Sunday at 5 a.m., Director-General of Civil Aviation Mohammad Chehabeddine told The Daily Star.
“Our intention is to send a flight to Antalya and Marmaris to collect approximately 200 more passengers Tuesday,” Chehabeddine said.
The return of the stranded travelers was facilitated by an agreement made Friday night between the Higher Relief Committee and the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation.
Half the price of the plane tickets was paid by the Higher Relief Committee, and half by small travel agencies that the passengers had used as middlemen to make bookings through New Plaza Tours, the company that allegedly defrauded the tourists.
Hundreds of Lebanese people have been stranded in Turkey after New Plaza Tours allegedly sold them fake hotel reservations and failed to pay for their return flights, resulting in their cancellation.
All New Plaza Tours branches have since been shut.
This is not the first time that clients of Fawaz’s agency have run into problems, according to the president of the Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies, Jean Abboud.
“There were 500 or 700 cases last summer,” Abboud told the Daily Star Thursday.
“We need to learn from what happened,” said Chehabeddine, adding that the DGCA will be aiming to implement stricter regulations on unlicensed travel agencies to ensure they are licensed before operating chartered flights.
“We’ll make a decision on this issue by this coming Friday once we get all [the tourists] back,” Chehabeddine said.
Saturday, an airport source said a plane associated with Fawaz was stopped by the Internal Security Forces for attempting to take off without permission from the DGCA.
The plane had been held up for about seven months at Beirut airport as Fawaz tried to establish a charter flight company, set to be named Fly Air Lebanon.
The plane attempted to leave Beirut Saturday, despite not having obtained the necessary permission.
The Internal Security Forces prevented the plane, owned by a Syrian national identified as S.F., from leaving the airport on the instruction of a Mount Lebanon judge, the source said.
The plane’s crew, comprising Italian and Greek nationals, was turned over to the ISF for investigation.
The head of the Higher Relief Committee, Mohammad Kheir, has filed a legal complaint against New Plaza Tours and all those involved “to preserve public funds,” the state-run National News Agency reported.
Some appear to be taking matters into their own hands.
Saturday, a Facebook group called Wen el-Dawle? (“Where is the state?”) posted a video taken Friday showing a handful of disgruntled clients congregated in what the group said was the office of travel agency Original Tours in Furn al-Shubbak. The clients in the video are shown demanding their money back from a woman after they allegedly purchased tickets that turned out to be fake.
According to the information published in the Facebook group, the woman is Fawaz’s sister, Wafaa Youssef Fawaz, who owns Original Tours agency.
The Daily Star could not reach Original Tours Sunday for comment.