They should have been well into the first part of their three-year Life at Sea cruise by now. The cruise went from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia.
One couple is stuck in an Istanbul hotel and about to lose their home more than a month after the cruise was abruptly canceled. Another woman has moved to Ecuador because she can’t afford to pay her mortgage, and a man who was just diagnosed with cancer has put off his treatment because he doesn’t have the money to pay for it.
On Tuesday, 78 people who wanted to go on Life at Sea sent a letter to Markenzy Lapointe, who is the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, asking him to look into whether the Turkish ship company Miray scammed them out of millions of dollars. According to them, the business took about $16 million and put it down as a deposit on a new ship that it never bought. It’s not clear what Mr. Lapointe will do.
Many people quit their jobs, sold their homes, and drained their funds to pay for what they thought would be the most exciting trip of their lives: a cruise with 382 stops over 1,095 days. But in late November, just a few days before the cruise was supposed to start, it was canceled because Miray couldn’t find a suitable ship.
Miray charged between $90,000 and $975,000 per suite, which is how much most of the guests paid to reserve their cabins. Some people paid the full fare ahead of time so they could get a refund. After the cancellation, Miray said it would give all passengers full refunds. However, two of the deadlines for repayment have passed, and only four of the more than 100 passengers have gotten partial refunds.
“If the passengers had known how their money was being used, they “could have made informed decisions about parting with their $16 million,” the passengers said in the lawsuit. They also said that the company had told them very clearly that their payments would not be used for upfront funding.
Vedat Ugurlu, the owner of Miray, sent Mikael Petterson, the former managing director of Life at Sea, a WhatsApp message in May saying that he had $5 million to put down on the AIDAaura, a bigger ship that would be better for the trip than the MV Gemini that had been planned. He told them they had to put down a total of $10 million because of a bank promise. He also told Mr. Petterson that they had until May 31 to get payments from passengers.
At the time, Mr. Petterson was in charge of sales and marketing. He said he didn’t feel safe receiving big amounts of money because the company didn’t have a U.S. bank account or the right systems in place to do so safely. As is usual in the U.S., Miray refused to set up an escrow account. It also didn’t have to post a bond with the Federal Maritime Commission to protect customer deposits because it wasn’t leaving from U.S. ports.
Miray has said that it did not use the money from the passengers to pay for the new ship, and it says that the delay in refunds is because of a lot of credit card chargeback issues, which have caused banks to block their funds. Most passengers said that they didn’t start asking for chargebacks until last week, because the company kept missing the dates it said it would meet for repayment.
In an interview on January 12, Ethem Bayramoglu, Miray’s chief operating officer, said, “We are working hard to get our banks the paperwork they need to release our funds. All of our passengers can be assured that they will be paid back in full by February 15.”
A lot of people don’t believe it. Kara Youssef, 36, a former relief worker from Ohio, said, “I won’t believe anything until I get my money back.” She sold her apartments to pay for the cruise and has been staying in an Istanbul hotel with her husband for more than two months while she waits to get her $80,000 back. She got a receipt from the bank on December 29 showing that the first part of her refund had been sent, but she never got the money.
Ms. Youssef finally talked to Mr. Bayramoglu on January 14. She had tried to reach him several times, and he told her he was at a soccer game and couldn’t talk. So far, he hasn’t set a time and place to meet with her to give her the cash part of the money.