November 10, 2017 at 5:11 PM
It began with the captain’s announcement: The luxury cruise ship would not be stopping in Madagascar, a country troubled by a deadly outbreak of plague.
The news came the day after the Costa neoRiviera liner set sail, its passengers expecting to be whisked, over two weeks, to Madagascar’s white sand beaches and to the nearby islands of Mauritius, the Seychelles and Réunion.
The captain first canceled one of three Madagascar stops, and later scrapped the other two, including one at the tourist resort of Nosy Be.
This left the ship with just three stops — on Mauritius, the Seychelles and Réunion — which especially frustrated many passengers from Réunion who had booked the cruise to visit islands other than their own.
To compensate for the cancellations, passengers were offered 150 euros — about $175, Costa Cruises said in a statement.
This sparked further outrage among the vacationers and led one passenger to call the ship a “floating prison” and organize a protest.
“Things started heating up; 150 euros, when a major part of the trip is canceled and a glass of water costs 5 euros?” the passenger, Alain Jan, told Le Parisien.
Jan, 53, runs a restaurant on Réunion, a French island east of Madagascar. The cruise departed from that island Oct. 26 at the height of an unusually deadly outbreak of pneumonic plague occurring throughout Madagascar.
Experts think the outbreak began in late August, when a 31-year-old man from the eastern city of Toamasina took a trip inland to Ankazobe, where the plague lives in rodent and flea populations. While there, the man came down with malaria-like symptoms. He died in a taxi on the way home, passing through Antananarivo, Madagascar's capital.
World Health Organization officials said some of the cases identified are directly or indirectly linked to the man, which is evidence of person-to-person transmission.
The outbreak has since infected about 1,800 people and killed at least 127, though WHO officials say there has been a decline in new plague cases reported since mid-October.
Mauritius, Seychelles and Réunion are on the WHO's list of travel destinations most at risk because of their proximity to Madagascar, which welcomed 293,000 visitors in 2016, according to the World Bank.
After the crew's announcement about the canceled stops, Jan and a small group of passengers demanded a better response.
When they didn't hear back, they staged a protest in a restaurant on the ship.
“There were 60 of us clapping our hands to alert other cruise passengers of this scam,” Jan told Le Parisien.
The protest failed.
So Jan organized a second one, this time in a theater as the ship was nearing the Seychelles.
As the ship docked, the exasperated captain called the local police chief to come aboard, Le Parisien reported.
The police chief listened to the passengers’ grievances and the crew’s explanation, then asked the captain whether he wanted to kick anyone off the ship.
Jan told Le Parisien that the captain pointed at him.
Costa Cruises officials said they chose to evict Jan because he “made violent protests . . . not accepting the reason of the change of the itinerary.” Officials said Jan had been “disturbing the cruise of many other guests on board.”
For Jan, being thrown off the vessel was a good thing: He said he and his wife spent two nights at a Seychelles hotel and were then flown home to Réunion on the cruise company's dime.
But he still felt bad for the passengers left behind, and went to greet them when the ship arrived at Réunion.
Some passengers told him that “they were treated like cattle,” he told Le Parisien, and that they continued to feel ripped off.
“We were 1,200 on board, of all nationalities,” he told the newspaper. “Chinese passengers paid 10,000 euros per person for this cruise.”
Passengers he spoke with were, he said, upset with Costa Cruises, believing the company made a decision to avoid Madagascar before the ship set sail.
But Costa Cruises officials said they made every effort to stick with the original itinerary.
The ship's medical staff spoke with health authorities in Mauritius just a few hours before the crew announced its decision not to go to Madagascar, the company said. Mauritius authorities were concerned about the ship stopping in Madagascar and then sailing to Mauritius, carrying passengers who might have caught the plague.
“In view of the delays that would be caused . . . should there be a suspected case on board, while also considering that passengers had already embarked, the company was forced to refocus its route on Seychelles, Réunion and Mauritius,” Costa Cruises said in a statement.
Officials said safety, health and the well-being of its guests and crew were its top priorities.
Passengers who booked excursions in Madagascar have been reimbursed, officials said, and those who embarked on a Costa neoRivera cruise Thursday were informed of the modified itinerary ahead of time.