As a dream itinerary for football fans, the “Arabia & World Cup Voyage” looked perfect.
The cruise ship Azamara Quest was to arrive in Qatar at 7.30am on Monday 21 November – the day of the first World Cup football matches involving England and Wales.
England’s first game in the controversial tournament kicks off against Iran at 1pm that day, while Wales play the USA at 7pm.
Passengers on the 11-night cruise were told they would spend three days in Doha, capital of the host nation – enabling them to enjoy cultural attractions such as the stunning new National Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art, as well as attending World Cup matches.
Unlike other arrivals to Qatar during the four-week long tournament, they would not need to pay a fortune for scarce flights and accommodation.
Ian Lever, from Bolton, decided it was the best possible birthday gift for his wife, Amanda. In the depths of the Covid crisis, when foreign travel was banned from the UK, he booked the voyage for them both through Imagine Cruising – part of the Dubai-based Emirates Group.
Ms Lever, a therapy instructor, said: “ This was advertised as World Cup voyage and as football fans we booked and have bought four lots of tickets.”
The couple managed to get tickets for both the England and Wales matches on 21 November, as well as two games the following day: Denmark v Tunisia and Croatia v Morocco. They spent more than £700 on tickets.
But less than eight weeks before the intended stay in Qatar, the cruise line announced the entire World Cup element of the Arabia & World Cup voyage had been scrapped – while the cruise was renamed the “Arabia & Dubai Voyage”.
Instead of the three days in Qatar, an extra day will be spent in Abu Dhabi and two more calls will be made at UAE ports.
The initial call at Muscat in Oman – now the only port outside the UAE on the entire cruise – has been curtailed.
Ms Lever said: “We’re so disappointed with what’s happened and still really want to go to the World Cup. I’m hoping that they may still find a way to get us to at least the England match but as the days pass we’re losing hope.
“We would be prepared to forego Abu Dhabi and stay in Qatar for the three days in a hotel if they would facilitate it.”
Passengers were told in a letter from Azamara: “Travel authorities in Qatar have recently informed us that they will be closing the port and not allowing cruise ships to enter during the World Cup games.
“Additionally, Qatar has provided logistical information explaining that travellers can only enter the country if they have tickets to the games. This means that it will not be possible for you to visit Qatar without attending a match.
“We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.”
Azamara says it is “working with the Qatar authorities to determine transportation options to attend a game”.
The Independent asked Azamara to provide more information on the cancellation and options for travellers, but has not yet had a response.
But Tracey James, customer director of Imagine Cruising, said: “We can confirm that a refund is available to any of our customers who no longer wish to travel due to the itinerary change on the Azamara Quest ‘Arabia & World Cup’ voyage.
“For those customers who have purchased World Cup tickets, we are currently liaising with the team at Azamara to ensure that they are assisted in getting to and from the events.
“This will be coordinated either by the cruise line or by ourselves, and we will be updating customers directly on these arrangements shortly.”
Ms Lever said: “A full refund wouldn’t compensate in any way for the loss of a much anticipated experience, would it?
“Obviously it’s better than nothing but we’d still lose out on tickets purchased.”
The change in dates for Abu Dhabi – preponed from 24-25 November to 21-23 November – also means that people who had planned separate excursions or theme park tickets are now left with bookings they cannot use.
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