Is Van Gogh Cursed?

April 2, 2008
Update -- Thursday, 12:52 p.m. At this point the ship is still docked in Funchal. We have been told that passengers had been given a letter saying the ship would leave later today or tomorrow. However this has not been confirmed by Van Gogh Cruise Line. We will keep you posted throughout the day.

Last week may have been a tough one for the operators of the one-ship Van Gogh Cruise Line when it was learned that it would cancel cruises it had planned this summer due to a financial constraint. This week? Might be even harder. Van Gogh, currently sailing a world cruise, was impounded yesterday by port police in Madeira.

The ship, sailing with 400-plus passengers, had been slated to complete the world cruise on Saturday. It is still docked in Funchal.

According to a report on the BBC, the Cheltenham-based cruise line has issued a statement that says it is working with authorities from the Portuguese island to release the ship and allow it to work out the financial hiccup upon conclusion of the cruise. So far, authorities have declined. BBC also reports that the debt that caused the ship to be detained was incurred under Van Gogh's previous ownership.

In the meantime, passengers are spending a few unexpected days in Madeira. They are free to leave the ship.

Troubles for Van Gogh

This week's fiasco comes on the heels of last week's disappointing cancellation of months of cruises. 17 ex-U.K. sailings to the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Norwegian fjords, Baltic and Canary Islands, will not take place. That's because, the line told Cruise Critic, it failed to gain membership into the powerful Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) -- which provides both a stamp of legitimacy for cruise lines and insurance protection (known as a bond) for passengers.

The cruise line could legally continue to operate without that membership. But Van Gogh's Sarah Brooks told us, "We could trade without the licence but the customers' money will not be protected and after what happened with Travelscope we don’t want our passengers to worry."

Remember Travelscope?

You may recall that late in 2007, the Van Gogh, then operated by Travelscope, was just about to set off on its "Round the World Cruise", when the company announced, weeks before the voyage was set to begin, it would cease operating.

But passengers who'd already paid their fares flouted what looked like certain disappointment when Netherlands-based Club Cruises, which had leased Van Gogh to Travelscope, worked with the ABTA to save the three month voyage.

Indeed, the future looked promising. A new company -- Van Gogh Cruise Line -- was created. In addition to ensuring the world cruise would continue as planned, it also began to create the aforementioned post-world cruise schedule of sailings that would take place well into autumn. There were more plans to add cruises in November and beyond. Until last week, when the line's failure to obtain the all-important ABTA bond was announced, all appeared sunny for this value-oriented cruise line and its passengers.

Who Said What?

Even prior to this week's impounding of Van Gogh the issue of the line's solvency was a murky one. The Van Gogh spokesperson told us that "the main reason given by ABTA for declining our application is our previous connections with Travelscope Holidays and the obvious effect that their demise has had on ABTA."

That's true, actually. A spokesperson for ABTA confirmed that it had rejected the line's application on the grounds that some directors had worked for Travelscope and it had gone into administration in December 2007.

However ABTA did say that Van Gogh Cruise Line could continue to trade without ABTA membership/bond (it was, in part, just that bond, which Travelscope had qualified for, that helped ensure that passengers were able to take the world cruise after all). But here's the rub: Without the financial assurance that such a bond gives to a cruise line, reputable travel agents would be leery of committing customer funds. And a cruise line that can't interest travel agents into selling its trips is at a major disadvantage since the significant number of cruise customers buy their voyages through agents.

As of last week, Van Gogh's spokesperson was still talking about a vague promise of cruises in November. Beginning November 22, it planned to feature some Christmas markets trips and more.

But all bets, at least at the moment, are off.

So What Now?

The more immediate concern of course is to get passengers home and we'll continue to follow the story tomorrow.

Beyond that, Van Gogh has announced that passengers who had planned to sail on any of the 17 ex-U.K. post-world cruise voyages -- some as soon as next week -- will be contacted and offered berths on the hoped-for series of trips to begin in November. If that doesn't work out, it told us passengers could get a full refund.

We'll keep you posted.

--by Kelly Ranson, U.K. Cruise Editor and Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief