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Cruise ship passengers protest after captain skips stops in plague-hit Madagascar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 11:35am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 8:53pm

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 Reunion.

The captain first cancelled 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 Reunion – which especially frustrated passengers from Reunion who had booked the cruise to visit islands other than their own.

To compensate for the cancellations, passengers were offered 150 (US$175), Costa Cruises said in a statement.

This sparked further outrage among the holidaymakers and led one passenger to call the ship a “floating prison” and organise a protest.

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“Things started heating up; 150 when a major part of the trip is cancelled and a glass of water costs 5?” the passenger, Alain Jan, told Le Parisien.

Jan, 53, runs a restaurant on Reunion, a French island east of Madagascar. The cruise departed from that island October 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.

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World Health Organisation officials said some of the cases identified were 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 said there has been a decline in new cases reported since mid-October.

After the crew’s announcement about the cancelled stops, Jan and a small group of passengers demanded a better response.

When they did not 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.

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The protest failed.

So Jan organised a second one, this time in a cinema as the ship was nearing the Seychelles.

As the ship docked, the exasperated captain called the local police, the newspaper 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 said the captain pointed at him.

Costa Cruises said it chose to evict Jan because he “made violent protests … not accepting the reason of the change of the itinerary” and 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 Reunion at the cruise company’s expense.

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But he still felt bad for the passengers left behind, and went to greet them when the ship arrived at Reunion.

Some passengers told him “they were treated like cattle”, and they continued to feel ripped off.

“We were 1,200 on board, of all nationalities,” he told the newspaper. “Chinese passengers paid 10,000 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 insisted every effort was made to stick to the original itinerary.

Mauritius authorities, the company said, were concerned about the ship stopping in Madagascar then sailing to Mauritius with passengers who might have caught the plague.

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“Should there be a suspected case on board, whilst also considering that passengers had already embarked, the company was forced to refocus its route,” Costa Cruises said in a statement.

The company said passengers who booked excursions in Madagascar were reimbursed and those who embarked on a Costa neoRivera cruise Thursday were told of the modified itinerary ahead of time.