After the giant holiday company Thomas Cook collapsed, around 60 British holidaymakers and 11 flight crew are said to have been “held to ransom” in a hotel in eastern Cuba.
The holidaymakers, plus nine cabin crew and two pilots, were due to fly home on Tuesday afternoon aboard Thomas Cook Airlines flight 2817 from the city of Holguin to Gatwick.
They were due in at 6.30am on Wednesday, but are now waiting for a promised rescue flight.
They have been staying at the Paradisus Rio de Oro hotel, on the north coast of the island close to the resort of Guardalavaca.
Hotel managers in Cuba and other Thomas Cook destinations have been told that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will foot the bill for accommodation.
But one member of Thomas Cook cabin crew, Danny Cossar, reported on video: “We were due to check out and get to the airport this afternoon. We were taken back off the bus, and we were told, as well as the passengers, we all had to pay.
“We feel completely isolated over here, no real communication at all, it’s just a matter of waiting and seeing if we can get this flight home tonight or whether we’ll be here for the night.
“We haven’t any rooms, there’s nothing put in place for us, it’s just a waiting game.”
All Thomas Cook flights ceased on Monday morning, leaving passengers and crew dependent upon an airlift organised by the CAA – code-named “Operation Matterhorn”.
The repatriation mission aims to get most of the 155,000 Thomas Cook customers abroad back to Britain on the day they were expecting. The CAA is also seeking to help flight crew.
A UK government spokesperson said: “We understand that this is a hugely distressing situation for Thomas Cook passengers, people with holidays booked with Thomas Cook and Thomas Cook staff.
“The government have deployed teams on the ground to support those affected, and are in contact with local authorities and hotels.”
Late on Tuesday night, the UK’s embassy in Cuba tweeted that hotels had been instructed to allow passengers to leave. It said: “Hotels in #Cuba now have authority/instruction to allow customers, and air crew, to depart without paying (on basis of ATOL guarantee). Very grateful for patience of all affected in distressing circumstances.”
Betty Knight, 52, who has worked for Thomas Cook as cabin crew for the last 13 years, has been liaising with her colleagues who are currently stranded in Cuba.
She said that some are getting extremely distressed: “Some of them are young mums, desperate to get home. They have been held to ransom.”
The cabin crew say they were asked for £3,000 in cash. When the captain offered to pay the bill by credit card, he was refused – apparently because it was issued by a US bank.
Because of Washington’s economic embargo against Cuba, American credit cards are difficult to use in Cuba.
The Independent has also been told that British tourists were “being held in the lobby” of another hotel along the coast, the Brisas Guardalavaca.
Sherry Bullough said that her parents had been told they must pay for their stay. She told The Independent: “They are being asked for £1,000 but they haven’t got the money to pay.
“They have had a meeting but been told that they can’t really do anything. The hotel have turned the wifi off. They aren’t allowing recording of meetings or confrontations. It’s so very upsetting.”
The British Ambassador to Havana, Antony Stokes, has become involved and is negotiating with the Cuban authorities on behalf of the passengers and crew.
Late on Tuesday evening, it emerged that crew from French and German airlines had offered to help their British colleagues with emergency accommodation and even offered to help find space on flights to Europe.
Cuba is highly dependent on tourism. Under Barack Obama, the US trade embargo was eased, and tens of thousands of Americans visited the island. But Donald Trump has tightened the regulations to rule out mainstream tourism.
British visitors started travelling to Cuba in large numbers in 1994.
The island will be hard hit by the collapse of Thomas Cook. The firm was expected to take around 2,000 visitors a week to Cuba during the winter season. There is no prospect of other companies stepping in at short notice to launch replacement flights to the island.