Customers who bought bus tickets and tour packages from Five Stars Tours are scrambling to make alternative plans, after the tour agency abruptly shuttered its offices on Wednesday afternoon.
At least 3,000 passengers' Chinese New Year plans have been affected, with some Malaysian passengers, who had booked tickets in advance, fearing they would be stuck in Singapore without a coach home in time for the new year.
Chinese New Year is typically one of the busiest seasons for express bus service operators.
"I'm worried I can't get home to be with my family," said Malaysian Chiah Hua Peng, 26, who had bought a bus ticket back to his home town in Perak from Five Stars last year. "Getting my money back is not the problem. It's getting back to Malaysia during this period that's the problem."
Unable to get a seat from other coach companies, he is considering asking friends to drive him across the Causeway.
When The Straits Times visited Five Stars' branches in People's Park Centre and Golden Mile Complex yesterday, there were notices on drawn shutters telling customers to make their claims through their travel insurance agencies, the Small Claims Tribunal, or the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case). The notices, dated Jan 8, said the company will be returning customers their passports through registered mail.
Customers who showed up yesterday told The Straits Times they learnt of the closure only through media reports.
Mr Neo Tiong Poh, who had booked a two-way trip to Malacca for tomorrow, took urgent leave from work yesterday to visit Golden Mile Complex, going from one tour agency to another in search of seats for four.
"They always tell you to book early because places go fast, but what's the point of booking early if you don't know whether the company will still be around?" asked the 53-year-old.
Three creditors also turned up at the Five Stars office yesterday morning.
Company directors could not be contacted, but Case president Lim Biow Chuan said the consumer watchdog has written to the directors, asking them to explain how they will deal with consumers who have been left in the lurch after paying for their tours.
Yesterday alone, the association received more than 250 complaints about Five Stars. Last year, there were 16 complaints against the company.
Industry sources said staff had not been paid Central Provident Fund contributions for several months. Last month, some also went without their full pay.
The Manpower Ministry said 96 employees from Five Stars and nine from Canto Kitchen - a restaurant co-owned by one of Five Stars' two directors - went to the ministry to file salary claims yesterday. Canto Kitchen announced its closure on Facebook yesterday.
Meanwhile, other agencies are coming on board to help stranded customers.
Five members under the Express Bus Agencies Association are fully booked for the Chinese New Year, but will charter extra buses from Jan 24 to Jan 30.
Affected passengers can contact Transtar Travel, Lapan Lapan Travel, Sri Maju Tours & Travel, Konsortium Express & Tours and WTS Travel. Tickets would be sold to them at a discount.
Dynasty Travel's marketing communications director Alicia Seah said the company will help advise affected customers on claiming travel insurance.
It received over 50 calls from affected customers yesterday. It will also charter a 35-seater bus to take affected passengers to Kuala Lumpur on Jan 29 for free.
Ms Susan Teng, the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore's chairman for outbound travel, said that despite the "unfortunate circumstance, customers should not be afraid to take their business to other professional travel agents".
Additional Reporting by Lee Jian Xuan