British travel group Thomas Cook declared bankruptcy on Monday after failing to reach a final bailout agreement, which led to the major repatriation of the United Kingdom since World War II to bring back tens of thousands of stranded passengers.
The 178-year-old operator, who had fought fierce online competition for some time and who had blamed Brexit's uncertainty for a recent drop in reserves, had been desperately looking for 200 million ($ 250 million, 227 million euros ) of private investors to avoid collapse.
The news leaves about 600,000 tourists stranded around the world, including about 150,000 tourists seeking help from the British government to return to their homes.
In a statement published in the early hours of the morning, Thomas Cook said that "despite considerable efforts" he could not reach an agreement between the company's stakeholders and the proposed new money providers.
"Therefore, the company's board concluded that it had no choice but to take measures to enter into mandatory liquidation with immediate effect," the statement said.
The UK government said it had hired planes to fly home to British tourists, in an operation that begins immediately.
"After the collapse of Thomas Cook and the cancellation of all his flights, Secretary of Transportation Grant Shapps has announced that the government and the Civil Aviation Authority of the United Kingdom have hired dozens of charter planes to take their clients to their homes for free, "said a statement describing it. as the greatest repatriation in the history of peacetime.
"All clients currently abroad with Thomas Cook who have booked to return to the United Kingdom in the next two weeks will be taken home as close as possible to their reserved return date," the government added.
Both a tour operator and an airline, the key destinations of the travel giant were in southern Europe and the Mediterranean, but also offered vacations in Asia, North Africa and the Caribbean.
Thomas Cook chief executive Peter Fankhauser called it a "deeply sad day," with thousands of lost jobs.
"It is a deep regret for me and for the rest of the board that we have not succeeded," he said.
"This marks a profoundly sad day for the company that pioneered the combined vacation and made the trip of millions of people around the world possible," he added in the group's statement.
The firm's creditors held a marathon meeting on Sunday to try to reach an agreement, followed by a board meeting.
Reports say that a collapse of the group would mean the repatriation of 600,000 tourists, including about 150,000 seeking government help to return to the United Kingdom.
Two years ago, the collapse of Monarch Airlines led the British government to take emergency measures to return 110,000 stranded passengers, which cost taxpayers about 60 million to hire planes.
In addition to the grounding of his planes, Thomas Cook has been forced to close the travel agencies, leaving the group's 22,000 global employees, of which 9,000 are in Britain, without work.
The Chinese group Fosun, which was already Thomas Cook's largest shareholder, agreed last month to inject 450 million into the business as part of an initial rescue package of 900 million.
In exchange, the Hong Kong-listed conglomerate acquired a 75 percent stake in the Thomas Cook tourism operations division and 25 percent of its airline unit.
"Fosun is disappointed that Thomas Cook Group has not been able to find a viable solution for its proposed recapitalization with other affiliates, central credit banks, senior note holders and other stakeholders," the Chinese group said in a statement to AFP Monday.
Cabinet maker Thomas Cook created the travel company in 1841 to transport supporters of temperance by train between British cities.
He soon began organizing trips abroad, being the first operator to take British travelers on escorted visits to Europe in 1855, to the United States in 1866 and on trips around the world in 1872.
Thomas Cook became a great operation, becoming a tour operator and an airline, but fell into a huge debt despite the recent annual turnover of 10 billion for the transport of some 20 million customers worldwide.