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They had signed up for the experience of a lifetime: three years traveling the world from the comfort of a cruise ship, at prices that rivaled regular living expenses.
But now the dream is over for passengers who’d signed up for Life at Sea Cruises’ inaugural three-year voyage. After weeks of silence, the company has acknowledged to passengers that it has no ship, and has canceled the departure, vowing to refund those who’d signed up for cruises costing up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The cruise was originally due to depart Istanbul, Turkey, on November 1, but shortly before that date, departure was postponed to November 11 and relocated to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and then to November 30, again from Amsterdam. But on November 17 – less than two weeks before the third departure date – passengers were informed the cruise was off.
Some of the passengers who booked the 111 cabins sold are still in Istanbul, having made their way there ahead of the original departure date. Others say they have nowhere to return to, having sold or rented out their homes in anticipation of the round-the-world voyage, as well as jettisoning their possessions.
Most have spent tens of thousands of dollars on what was meant to be the experience of a lifetime, and now face a wait of at least several months to get their money back. The company has said it will make repayments in monthly installments, starting from mid-December and completing repayments in late February. It has also offered to pay for accommodation until December 1 and flights home for anyone now stranded in Istanbul. But some say they have no homes to return to.
“There’s a whole lot of people right now with nowhere to go, and some need their refund to even plan a place to go – it’s not good right now,” said one passenger, who wished to remain anonymous until they get their promised refund.
Life at Sea Cruises had been planning to buy the AIDAaura, a ship retired this summer by AIDA Cruises, a German subsidiary of Carnival Corp. It was due to be rechristened as the MV Lara. The company had originally slated the sale to go through by the end of September, before working on the ship in dry dock in Germany, then renovating it before sailing to Istanbul to start the cruise.
But after six weeks of uncertainty, during which Life at Sea repeatedly told guests that the sale was taking longer than planned, on November 16 another company, Celestyal Cruises, announced that it had bought the AIDAaura.
A day later, Life at Sea’s former CEO Kendra Holmes – who had resigned days earlier and said she was not speaking on behalf of the parent company, Miray Cruises – recorded a 15-minute video for passengers, admitting that the cruise would not be going ahead. It’s unclear why Holmes was chosen to make the announcement, which was provided to CNN by a passenger. She has declined to comment to CNN.
Forty eight hours after Holmes’ video, passengers received a message from Vedat Ugurlu, the owner of Miray Cruises, which owns Life at Sea. Declaring himself “extremely sorry for the inconvenience,” he confirmed the cruise would not be departing as planned. The reason: they couldn’t afford the ship.
In his message, Ugurlu claimed that “Miray is not such a big company to afford to pay 40-50 million for a ship,” but that it had “presented the project to investors, and had official approval from some of them to buy the vessel.”
He said that while the company had made the down payment for the ship, the investors “declined to support us further due to unrest in the Middle East.”
Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, a week after the ship’s sale was originally supposed to have concluded. Life at Sea didn’t respond to a query about what prior unrest they were referring to that could have impeded the completion of the transaction.
Ugurlu also told passengers that day that the company then tried and failed to buy another ship, and that it was working on a third.
“If we will not be able to sail on December 1, we will offer you to sail on another departure date or refund all the payments within a short schedule,” he wrote. “We have tried everything to make your dreams come true and we will continue to do so.”
He added that the company could, in theory, launch the cruise on the MV Gemini, Miray’s smaller ship which it had originally planned for the voyage, before deciding it was too small.
“We choose not to because we have promised you a larger, newer vessel,” he wrote. The Gemini is at the heart of a defamation lawsuit brought by Miray against former managing director of Life at Sea Cruises, Mikael Petterson, who was one of several employees to split from the team in May. The lawsuit states that Petterson called the ship “unseaworthy” – a claim that Miray vehemently denied.
Ups and downs
Just a day after Ugurlu’s glimmer of hope, another staff member of Life at Sea, Chief Operating Officer Ethem Bayramoglu messaged passengers to confirm that the cruise was off. “In case we weren’t clear, the Life at Sea cruise trip is canceled,” Bayramoglu wrote, giving instructions on the refund process, and how passengers can retrieve “pods” full of their belongings – which they’d shipped in advance of the cruise.
Yet at the same time, Bayramoglu added, the company “intend[s] to honor our commitments.”
“Although we are all disappointed and frustrated that we didn’t sail this time, it is important to us that you feel positive overall about your experience with us,” the message reads. “Vedat in particular is still hopeful that Miray will someday soon have an option for you to consider.”
Bayramoglu subsequently met with stranded passengers in Istanbul to help plan their returns home.
Would-be cruisers – who wanted to remain anonymous until their refunds come through – have told CNN of their shock and dismay that the trip has been canceled. Some had sold their homes or wound up businesses to join the cruise.
“I’m very sad, angry and lost,” said one. “I had the next three years of my life planned to live an extraordinary life, and now [I have] nothing. I’m having a hard time moving forward.
“I was proud and feeling brave, now I don’t trust anyone or anything. I know it’ll work out and life will go on, but I’m uncertain of the direction.”
Another said they felt “incredibly sad and incredibly betrayed.”
“The company seems to have no consideration about what they’ve done to our lives,” they said.
“I never imagined I’d be in this position as a senior citizen.”
They also lamented the loss of community that had been built in the run-up to the cruise: “I was looking forward to building friendships – that’s what made it different from a regular cruise. We were all of the same mindset and all started with the same thing in common.”
A third, speaking just before the cruise was confirmed as canceled, said they were feeling “let down, deceived and betrayed.”
In the meantime, Life at Sea’s erstwhile CEO, Kendra Holmes, who resigned last week, claims she’s planning to offer a new long-term cruise with a different company.
In her 15-minute video address to Life at Sea passengers on Friday – despite having already resigned from the company – she solicited interest in a long-term, round-the-world cruise offered by a new company that she’ll be working with, which she named as HLC Cruises.
Holmes didn’t respond to questions from CNN, but a spokesperson for HLC Cruises, who said they were on the company board, confirmed Holmes was the company’s new CEO and told CNN: “We have nothing to do with Life at Sea, we do not want our name to be associated with them, but we are working on something and are trying to help people who are left without homes if we can.” Its website currently advertises “boutique cruise liners” selling duty free gold bullion, diamonds and gems onboard.
Holmes told stranded Life at Sea passengers that if 60 or 70 of them “transferred” to the new company, they would be able to “get something going” by the first week of December, and already had approval from the HLC board to do so.
The company would get a temporary ship to sail for three or four months, she said, while purchasing a permanent vessel for a longer voyage to start next year. If Life at Sea passengers didn’t take up the offer, she said, they’d also be looking to launch a long-term cruise in October 2024.
“There’s a lot of ships out there so we’ll get something in place probably early next week then start looking for a permanent vessel,” she said on November 17 – before updating them via social media 72 hours later that the offer of a temporary cruise was, in fact, off, and that HLC was “targeting an official start date sometime in March.”
“People got their hopes up once again only to be dashed a few days later – I’m surprised no one in the group has had a heart attack,” said one would-be passenger.
Meanwhile, Villa Vie Residences – the company set up by Petterson and the other former Life at Sea staffers who left in May to start their own rival business – is promising low deposits and guaranteed introductory rates for anyone who wants to join them. They do not as yet have a ship or a launch date, either.
Life at Sea Cruises and Miray Cruises did not respond to specific questions from CNN, but sent a statement from Ugurlu addressed to passengers citing “investor withdrawal” causing “challenges” to the project. The letter was sent to CNN November 21 and spoke about a potential upcoming cruise date – despite the cruise having already been canceled.
“While we’re in talks to acquire a similar vessel, if the December 1 sail is jeopardized, we offer alternative departure dates or expedited refunds,” said the statement, which went on to describe the refund process.
“As we navigate these challenges, we are actively working on creating alternative plans for the future, ensuring an unforgettable experience for our valued community,” it concluded.
“I regret any inconvenience and assure you of our commitment.”
One passenger from the failed cruise, however, is feeling more than inconvenienced.
“I’m in a state of disbelief that they’ve done this to us,” they said, adding that staff had started out “eager and confident, and then the past few months just slowly disappeared.”
“I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the disappointment of losing this opportunity,” they said.
“I don’t think they will ever understand how much damage they’ve caused us.”