TORONTO - Some Canadians say the sun-splashed Mexican holidays they booked through a now-collapsed travel company turned into ugly ordeals as they faced hotel managers demanding they shell out thousands of dollars or face the police.
Canadians clashed with Mexican hotel security guards Thursday when a group of 28 people staying at the Golden Parnassus resort tried to leave the premises after disputing their bill, according to one of the travellers. He said pushing and shoving ensued.
The problems started Wednesday, when Conquest Vacations Inc. suddenly announced it was shutting its doors, blaming fierce competition and a faltering economy.
Since then, the Canadians say hotels that worked with Conquest have been demanding that customers pay for their room and board, even though the tourists had already given the travel company the money.
The situation at one Cancun resort escalated as time wore on.
Christopher Lee, who has been staying at Golden Parnassus hotel since last Thursday, said that security refused to let an elderly Manitoba man and his daughter leave the premises after they refused to pay for their vacation a second time.
He said the conflict escalated to a point that the hotel wouldn't let others leave for the airport until they paid their bills.
"If we tried to leave they would physically push us back into the building," Lee told The Canadian Press in a phone interview.
Four local police officers were called in by the hotel staff and the group of Canadians was forced to pay, he said.
A reservations manager at the hotel disputes the claim that police were involved, and said the hotel is trying to compromise, even though she said it hasn't received money from Conquest.
"We're talking with all the guests right now and we tell them that we're going to (give them) a special rate," said Elizabeth Ruiz from the Golden Parnassus hotel. "They don't have any control of this situation, but obviously we need to get a guarantee."
"Most of them are very, very mad, obviously."
Ruiz said she hopes by reducing rates the vacationers will be able to come to a compromise with the hotel, and later get money back from Conquest.
"We sacrifice a little and also the travel agency sacrifices a little," she said. "We don't get anything from that space (room), but at least we don't lose something."
However, she also downplayed accounts that police were called in to settle disputes with the Canadians.
"We don't need the police, nothing like that, because we are giving them a special rate," she said
Lee said he ended up paying US$700 to the hotel, an amount which he managed to talk down from the initial $US$1,900 that the Golden Parnassus demanded.
That's on top of the US$1,300 he has already paid to the now defunct Conquest travel company.
"The vast majority have paid because we don't really have any choice. We can't miss our flight - that would put us in an even worse position," he said.
"We had to show our receipt before the security, backed up by the police, let us walk off the grounds."
Similar stories were being heard from other vacationers in Mexico on Thursday as the fallout of the Conquest collapse rippled through popular sunshine resorts.
"Either they'll put me out or they put me in jail," said vacationer Bissoongai Seepersaud, who has been staying at the Oasis Cancun resort since Saturday with her sister and their four children.
Seepersaud, who lives in Toronto, said she paid for her holiday before she left Canada. But on Thursday, hotel managers were demanding she pay US$6,000, which they claim is the amount outstanding owed by Conquest for her time at the resort - or they would call police.
"When I came down, they said we'd have to pay to stay here because Conquest went under - ever since then they've been bugging us to pay, pay, pay," she said by telephone from the hotel's lobby.
Seepersaud said she booked the week-long holiday in part using reward points accumulated on her TD Bank (TSX:TD) credit card, and paid for the remainder of the all-inclusive vacation. The bank booked the package through Conquest.
"I contacted TD and they told us to go ahead and pay," Seepersaud said.
Her concern now is getting the US$6,000 refunded.
TD Bank spokeswoman Kelly Hechler said that fewer than 100 of the bank's customers were affected by the Conquest closure through the TD Rewards program, but that the bank is working to ensure those cases are taken care of.
"We are reaching out, calling them and assisting them with any other arrangements that they need to have made," she said.
"Everyone is going to be made whole out of this. No one will lose points or money because of what's happened."
At the Golden Parnassus, Lee said that notes were slipped under the doors of Canadian guests' rooms telling them that they owed the hotel extra money.
"My amount was more than the entire value of my trip, plane and hotel room by about US$300," he said in a call from his cellphone.
"I paid US$1,600 total for my plane, and hotel, and they were asking for $1,900."
He estimated that another 50 Canadians were in the same situation at the Golden Parnassus alone.
Part of that group left with him late Thursday, though he said another small group of Canadian vacationers still remain at the resort until their scheduled flights over the next few days.
Lee said that he called the Canadian Consulate in Mexico on behalf of fellow guests and was advised to simply pay the amount owed.
"I pointed out... that this is pretty clear extortion, they're just trying to keep me in a country using the police for an amount that I do not owe," he said.
The Canadian consulate in Mexico referred calls by The Canadian Press to Foreign Affairs in Ottawa which said that travellers should consult its website for updated information.
"In case of emergency consular assistance, Canadians should contact the nearest Canadian Government Office abroad or DFAIT's Emergency Operations Centre by calling collect to 613-996-8885 or by sending an email to sos(at)international.gc.ca," wrote foreign affairs spokesman Andre Lemay in an email response.
Liberal MP Dan McTeague said the federal government should stop telling the vacationers to pay the hotels because it opens the possibility that other Canadians will become victims.
"That to me is unacceptable situation which requires the foreign minister to contact the Mexican ambassador and put a halt to this," he said.
"There is an international role for the government to play beyond simply saying 'pay up and we'll settle it when you get back to Canada."'
Cancun is a popular spot for young couples and students looking for a sunshine destination and a party atmosphere.
"The worst thing is for those here who don't have credit cards. Those who just have cash or the students who don't have extra money," said Hugh Stewart, a oil well drilling consultant who was also staying at the Golden Parnassus.
Stewart, who lives in Lloydminster, Alta., who has been staying at the resort since last Friday was concerned that any money he pays the hotel will never be refunded to him.
Some Canadian provinces, like Ontario, have consumer protection organizations specifically for travellers who used registered travel agencies. However, other provinces like Alberta don't have the same protection.
Stewart said that has complicated his decision over whether he wants to challenge the hotels over their charges.
"We do have our receipts, everything shows it's paid in full," he said. But "they've threatened to seize our luggage."
He said most people are trying to barter down the charges before they pay them.
Hundreds of Canadians had their travel plans thrown for a loop when Conquest shut down without warning, blaming the credit crunch and price wars. A telephone line for the company was not in service Thursday.
Travel companies generally purchase seats on airplanes and book hotel rooms in advance, requiring them to pay a set price under a contract, which means that when few travellers book with them they're losing money on every unfilled spot.
A media report cited a spokesperson for the Overseas World Marketing, a collection agency for Occidental hotels, as saying that Conquest hasn't paid its bills since last month and owes about US$100,000.
Conquest vacationers who hadn't left for their destinations were promised refunds and many said they would reschedule with its competitors.