[UPDATED Thurs 9 Jan, 6pm: Latest statement by CASE]
Its shock closure could not have come at a worse time.
Potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of travellers have been left in the lurch after popular coach and travel agency Five Stars Tour abruptly closed all eight of its branches across Singapore on Wednesday.
In its latest statement as of 5pm on Thursday, the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) said it has received over 250 complaints -- 203 by phone, 37 walk-in and 17 online -- complaints against the tour agency, mostly due to its failure to honour terms of the agreement.
News of the travel agency's closure was first reported by Chinese daily Lianhe Wanbao. In its report, it said Five Stars Tour had applied for a liquidation notice with the police.
When this reporter visited its main branch at People's Park Complex on Thursday morning, a notice at its entrance read that the agency "has closed for business and stop providing services with immediate effect. We will be returning all passports to customers through registered article in the next few days".
It also said customers with unfulfilled trips can make claims through travel insurance or file claims through the Small Claims Tribunal or CASE.
A customer, who only wants to be known as Ms Chua, went to check out the head office at People's Park Complex.
The 30-year-old housewife said she had paid Five Stars Tours S$2476 just earlier this week for a trip to Beijing for two people.
She had gone on two tours organised by Five Stars Tours previously, and had a good impression of the company, she said.
When she heard that the company had shut its doors suddenly, she checked the receipt issued by Five Stars Tours, and realised that the staff who sold her the package and handled the paperwork for her did not sign on the document.
Worried, she tried to call the different branches, and eventually made a police report when she could not get a satisfactory response.
She recounted: "I wanted to pay by credit card, but the staff told me they only accepted cash as it was a special promotional package. I didn’t think much of it then, but I feel so stupid now.”
Despite Chinese New Year being just around the corner, the travel agency that employed over 200 staff gave no advance notice or warning before shutting down.
Many Malaysians who reside in Singapore typically book their bus tickets through Five Stars, known for its luxury coach services to several destinations in Malaysia. Besides Malaysia, it also offers group and free and easy tours to locations across America, Australia, Asia and Southeast Asia.
Malaysian Leong Khoon An, who works as an electrician in Singapore, told Yahoo Singapore he had bought return bus tickets to Malacca for the coming Monday.
When the 31-year-old heard the news of the agency abruptly closing its doors, he was “taken aback”and felt “cheated”, he said in Mandarin.
“I’ve been a loyal customer, buying my bus tickets from Five Star for at least the past five years. Now they just up and close without refunding us, or even informing us,” he said.
The return ticket cost him about S$100, and to purchase a replacement at this point in time would be even more expensive and troublesome,he added.
Another Five Stars Tour customer, Yvette Xu, 23, had bought a pair of tickets to Genting Highlands.
The university student, who made the purchase only a few weeks ago, said: “If the company knew they were in trouble, yet continued selling tickets and packages to customers, they are really irresponsible.”
She said she will lodge a report with CASE.
Despite the agency winding up business, its website (sg.fivestarsonline.com) was still live at the time of reporting and offering travel tour packages to several destinations in Malaysia as well as South Korea and Taiwan.
One advertisement shows a promotion for gift vouchers at 10 per cent off. The promotion is supposed to run from 21 December to the end of January.
Yahoo Singapore called all Five Stars Tour’s main office at People's Park Complex as well as its 7 branches, but the calls went unanswered.
According to The Straits Times, Five Stars had been struggling to stay afloat in recent months -- staff had not been paid CPF contributions for months and it was forced to sell its headquarters in People's Park Complex last year before renting it back from the new owner.
It also reported that the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas) is monitoring the situation closely but could not tell how many customers are affected as they have been unable to contact Five Stars' management.
Affected consumers may call the CASE hotline at 6100 0315 forfurther assistance.