Uncovering the Secrets of the Cruise Ship Graveyard

Have you ever wondered what happens to cruise ships when they are out of service? Learn what happens with our guide to the cruise ship graveyard.

Modern cruise ships are true engineering marvels. From their immense scale and powerful propulsion systems to their luxurious interiors and charming amenities, these magnificent vessels capture the imagination like no other form of transportation. 

While they are certainly enchanting, many wonder what happens to them when they are no longer fit for service. Behind the scenes of the cruise industry is an equally fascinating world of cruise ship disposal and recycling. Like automobiles and airplanes, even cruise ships eventually find themselves at the scrap yard.

Today, we will dive into the unfamiliar world of the cruise ship graveyard. We will uncover where these once glorious vessels end up and explain the disposal and recycling process used to break these massive ships down. We will also answer questions about the lifespan of a typical cruise ship and whether or not their disposal has environmental implications. 

So, if you are ready to uncover the secrets of the cruise ship graveyard, let’s get started!

What Is the Lifespan of a Cruise Ship?

Before we explore the concept of a cruise ship graveyard, it is worth explaining how long a cruise ship lasts and why all vessels must be taken out of service at some point. 

Typically, a full-size cruise ship can remain in service for roughly 30 years; however, the exact lifespan will depend on the needs of the cruise line operating each ship. Some luxurious cruise lines will take their ships out of service and either sell them off or send them off to be scrapped.

Other cruise lines will extend the typical lifespan of their ships by refurbishing them. This can be simple updates to interior décor and furnishings or more substantial technological upgrades. If a cruise ship is maintained and updated properly, it could be in service for as long as 40 years. 

What Happens When a Cruise Ship Is Decommissioned? 

When a decision is made to take a cruise ship out of service, it must undergo a meticulous decommissioning process. This process involves more than simply powering down the engines and locking the doors. 

Environmental Hazard Removal

For starters, the cruise ship’s massive fuel tanks must be emptied completely. This is for environmental purposes, as it helps reduce the risk of a fuel spill during the salvaging process. 

Decommissioned cruise ships must also undergo a detailed environmental assessment from a neutral party. The entire ship is examined during this process to ensure all hazardous materials are accounted for. Once the fuel tanks have been emptied safely, the fuel lines are drained to ensure no environmentally hazardous material is left behind.

Worth Reading: Cruise Ship Out of Water – How Does It Look?

Other potentially hazardous materials, such as asbestos, mercury, hydrocarbons, and various corrosive heavy metals, are accounted for during the assessment. These will need to be removed and disposed of in accordance with all of the relevant environmental regulations. 

Stripping of the Interior

The interior can be fully stripped once the decommissioned cruise ship has been assessed for potential environmental hazards and its remaining fuel and other engine fluids have been removed safely.

Carnival Ecstasy Rolls Royce
Photo Courtesy: Carnival Cruise Line

During this process, all interior furniture and equipment are removed. In some cases, it can be auctioned off so it can be repurposed or scrapped so the materials can be repurposed.

Some interior components, such as artwork, kitchen appliances, high-end furniture, and even chandeliers, can generate significant income for the cruise line during auction. This helps cover some expenses of sending the ship to be scrapped at a cruise ship graveyard.

This process is important for financial purposes and helps reduce the environmental impact of disposing of such a massive vessel. 

Salvaging of Valuable Equipment and Materials

Finally, the decommissioned cruise ship is broken down and stripped at a scrap yard specializing in large-scale ship disposal. Not only are the engines and other significant components removed, but the ship’s steel hull is broken down so the metal can be melted down for repurposing.

It will not surprise you that full-size cruise ships are constructed from massive amounts of high-grade, non-corrosive metal. When recycled correctly, this metal and electrical wiring can be worth an incredible amount of money, especially if it is not overly corroded. This is what makes the cruise ship scrapping industry profitable. 

Even the thousands of windows on a cruise ship can be removed and recycled like any other type of glass. 

Where Does This Take Place? – Introducing Cruise Ship Graveyards 

Given the immense size of a cruise ship, the salvaging and dismantling process cannot occur at a typical scrap yard. This is where ship graveyards come into play.

Cruise Ship Graveyard

These specialized scrap yards are equipped to deal with large ships. They have massive ports where the decommissioned ships can be towed. From there, crews can work with breaking down the ships and salvaging materials and components for recycling.

In many cases, luxury cruise ships are demolished and scrapped alongside large ships, like cargo ships, tankers, and research vessels.

Where Are the Cruise Ship Graveyards?

The most notable cruise ship graveyards tend to be in poorer countries where labor is inexpensive. These include the following: 

1. The Alang Ship Breaking Yard in Alang, India

The Alang Ship Breaking Yard is considered to be the world’s largest scrap yard for decommissioned ships. The facility is home to 183 full-sized ship dismantling yards and has numerous docks where retired ships can be towed in for the first stages of scrapping. 

The Alang Ship Breaking Yard handles cruise ships and has dismantled everything from oil tankers to aircraft carriers. 

2. The Aliağa Ship Recycling Yard in Aliağa, Turkey

The Aliağa Ship Recycling Yard on the coast of Turkey has gained international recognition for its more environmentally friendly approach to recycling cruise ships and other types of vessels.

Monarch and Sovereign Cruise Ships Scrapped

Thousands of workers work harmoniously to recycle steel and other valuable materials from decommissioned ships. This recycling facility also gained prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic, as lockdown measures particularly impacted the cruise industry. Numerous cruise lines sold cruise ships to Aliağa for recycling and demolition. 

3. The Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard in Faujdarhat, Bangladesh

This enormous ship scrap yard handles roughly one-fifth of the world’s decommissioned ships, so it is a massive operation. In fact, the Chittagong facility employs over 200,000 people at any given time. 

While it handles all forms of ship demolition, the facility’s main specialization is steel recovery. While it was once seen as a major tourist attraction in Bangladesh, it had to close access to the general public due to safety concerns. Sadly, the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard has come under international scrutiny for its poor safety record, with reports claiming that roughly one worker dies per week. 

4. Gadani Ship Breaking Yard in Gadani, Pakistan

The world’s third largest ship scrapping yard is located along the coast of the Arabian Sea in southern Pakistan. At any given time, the Gadani Ship Breaking Yard can handle 125 full-sized ships, including full-size cruise ships.

Although the facility has reduced its size and number of employees in recent years, it still handles numerous cruise ships every single year, especially those originating from the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Economics of Cruise Ship Graveyards

You might be wondering how the ship graveyard industry works financially. While you may assume that cruise lines would have to pay vast sums of money to dispose of such giant objects, it turns out that scrapping cruise ships is fairly profitable, especially in countries where the average hourly income is relatively low.

Recycling scrap metal on such a massive scale can be very lucrative. In particular, the high-grade steel that can be recovered from the outer hull of a cruise ship can be a precious commodity in a resource-poor nation.

Sovereign Cruise Ship Scrapping
Photo By: Selçuk Ateş

As such, ship scrap yards bid on decommissioned cruise ships and purchase them from the cruise lines. While cruise lines may have to pay certain environmental fees when they decommission a ship, much of this money can be recovered when it is sold. 

Cruise ship graveyards can be profitable and sustainable enterprises and provide much-needed job opportunities in countries and regions with low employment rates.

While they certainly can be good for local economies, ship scrap yards can also be extremely dangerous places to work, which is why there has been a recent crackdown on workplace safety standards. Certain countries have also demanded stricter environmental standards for the scrapping industry, making operating a full-scale ship scrap yard more expensive. 

Is it Possible to Visit a Cruise Ship Graveyard?

While seeing the skeletons of once glamorous cruise ships may appeal to some adventurists, most cruise ship graveyards are off-limits to the general public. This is simply due to safety concerns and certain regulations requiring individuals to undergo strict training before entering one of these types of facilities.

Chittagong ship breaking yard
Chittagong ship breaking yard (Photo Credit: Katiekk)

While certain facilities used to be open to the public, like the Chittagong Ship Breaking Yard in Bangladesh, most have now closed their doors. To feed the curiosity of locals and tourists alike, some of these cruise ship graveyards will hold occasional guided tours and photography events, but they are usually reserved for days when the scrap yard is inactive. 

Some of these ship graveyards have even been featured in major Hollywood movies, such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, which contained a scene that was featured in a South African shipyard. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Are cruise ship graveyards subject to environmental regulations? 

Yes, most cruise ships are now subject to environmental standards, particularly regarding waste disposal. Where ship scrap yards were far less eco-friendly in the past, most countries have now introduced recycling initiatives that ensure even less valuable materials are recycled appropriately.

International regulatory bodies are also beginning to introduce regulations regarding the sustainability of the ship-breaking industry. 

How much is a decommissioned cruise ship worth? 

Given that ship scrap yards purchase decommissioned cruise ships from cruise lines, you might wonder what they are actually worth. 

In general, the value of a cruise ship will depend primarily upon its weight in tonnage, as well as the quality and condition of the steel that ship was constructed from. A well-made, mid-sized cruise ship might weigh somewhere between 60,000 to 120,000 tons.

Most of this weight would be steel. Assuming the steel was not overly corroded and the ship had been used relatively recently, it could be worth roughly two million dollars in scrap value. Naturally, larger ships can be worth even more. 

Rather than set a specific price for the ship, most cruise lines will actually auction off their decommissioned and stripped ships. Allowing various ship graveyards to bid on the ship makes the final price difficult to predict. There is also the fact that scrap metal values can fluctuate over time, so, in many ways, the global market dictates the value of a decommissioned cruise ship. 

What is the average lifespan of a cruise ship?

For the most part, a typical cruise ship will be in service for 25 to 30 years. As you would expect, proper maintenance and upgrades ensure that a cruise ship can be serviceable for longer.

For larger ships that are regularly updated and properly maintained, the life span can be as long as 40 years. It is important to note that older ships need to undergo more frequent safety inspections to ensure that they are not at risk of breaking down while carrying passengers. 

Final Words 

While the world of cruise ship graveyards can be fascinating, relatively few people understand how it works. Many assume unserviceable cruise ships remain still and simply erode, but they are quickly broken down and recycled. 

Even after their days of transporting eager passengers through the world’s most exciting waters are over, these enormous ships are still incredibly valuable.

Read Also: Where Do Cruise Ships Go To Die? The Dismantling Process

In many ways, the stripping and recycling of a cruise ship is the final phase of its life span. From being built by thousands of skilled workers and carrying for up to 40 years to eventually being broken down and scrapped, the lifecycle of a cruise ship is truly fascinating.

The fact that so much of a cruise ship is repurposed and recycled after all those years of service is a testament to the modern cruise industry’s commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility.

Emrys Thakkar
Emrys Thakkar
The founder of Cruise Hive which was established in 2008 as one of the earliest cruise blogs in the industry. Emrys has been reporting on the latest cruise industry news since the site first launched. Expert insights and tips featured on a number of publications including The Express, Business Insider, and more. Worked for Carnival Cruise Line for 8 years and is well and truly dedicated to cruising! Has also been on a number of cruises so can offer an insight into the industry that many will not be able to do. What's even more impressive is that Emrys has traveled the world by visiting more than 34 countries, lived in China for 8 years, and cruised the Caribbean, Baltic, Mediterranean, Asia, and Europe. Find out more about us here.

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