The end of a cruise ship’s serviceable lifespan is a significant milestone, and there are many reasons why a cruise line may decide the scrapyard is the best destination for one of its vessels.
It doesn’t always mean the ship is completely unusable, however, and simply getting older isn’t necessarily the end of a cruise ship’s life.
In This Article…
How Long a Cruise Ship Lasts
A new cruise ship can easily entertain passengers for many years, even decades. In general, a cruise ship’s initial lifespan is 25-30 years, so long as regular maintenance upgrades are made to the vessel. If more extensive renovations are done, a single ship could easily be sailing for 40 years or longer.
As maritime technological advances are made, however, the operational capabilities of an older ship will fall further and further behind newer, more modern vessels. That does not mean that an older ship must automatically be scrapped, but more extensive (and expensive) revitalization projects must be undertaken to keep the ship profitable.
Cruise lines will make the decision for when and how to update a ship based on their own operational needs, maritime regulations, available budgets, supply chain resources, and other factors. Most of today’s cruise ships are updated every 3-5 years.
At first, a cruise line will update and renovate a ship’s passenger areas. Upgrades to staterooms, bars, lounges, and restaurants can make a slightly dated vessel seem new again, and may attract more passengers. Relatively small updates such as changes to lighting, upgraded linens, new paint, or refinished decking can easily refresh a vessel.
More extensive renovations might include converting oceanview staterooms into balconies, adding completely new bars or dining venues, and renovating deck space to add adventuresome new attractions.
Ships will also need technical and mechanical updates periodically. This can improve engine efficiency and environmental performance, provide better computer and internet service, improve air filtration and circulation, and support new high-tech shows and performances.
Eventually, however, the cost to update a ship may no longer be as profitable as a cruise line would like. At that time, there are other steps that can be taken.
A ship might be moved to different homeports or itineraries in an effort to increase profitability and attract new travelers. The ship might also be sold to another operator in a different part of the world, one that may specialize in alternative itineraries or different markets that the original cruise line does not pursue.
In some cases, a cruise ship might be sold not to another cruise line, but to a different type of operator for more extensive refitting.
Some vessels have been refit to serve as floating hotels or other housing, for example, offering less expensive residential alternatives in different parts of the world. When this happens, a ship’s engines no longer need to propel the vessel and can be refit solely to power its onboard operational needs, which can extend the overall lifespan of the vessel.
If no sales or refit options are available, it may be time for the ship to set sail for the scrapyard.
Reasons to Scrap a Cruise Ship
For most cruise lines, an individual ship will reach several of the following obstacles before the final decision of scrapping is made. Ultimately, there will come a time when a cruise ship must be scrapped, simply because it can no longer be updated, upgraded, or renovated in a profitable or practical fashion.
Scrapping might be the best solution because there have simply been too many technological innovations and even upgrading the ship cannot make it competitive with newer vessels.
If a ship’s computer systems, for example, are no longer able to communicate effectively with shoreside operations centers for the latest in navigational data, weather reports, or other critical information, the ship may no longer be able to operate.
Changes in engine design can also be insurmountable obstacles to a cruise ship’s upgrades. While some engine components can be updated over the years, full engine replacement is rarely feasible.
The same goes for updates to the ship’s electrical wiring or overall plumbing, both of which would require massive labor and time out of service to be updated properly.
Similarly, changes in environmental or safety regulations could lead to the need for extensive renovations for a vessel, which will decrease its overall profitability compared to a newer ship that either needs no refitting or else can be upgraded more easily.
Environmental regulations may be levied on the cruise industry as a whole with respect to ship emissions, wastewater treatment, or underwater noise or vibration levels that could be harmful to marine habitats.
Safety changes such as required upgrades for poor weather operations, lifeboat design, fire suppression, health protocols, and other factors can likewise put older cruise ships in the difficult position of unreasonable and impractical updates.
Over time, cruise travelers’ expectations change, and older ships may not be able to compete with the features and amenities offered aboard newer vessels. For example, today’s cruisers appreciate more spacious cabins and private balconies, as well as elite ship-in-ship exclusive spaces available for different stateroom categories.
Older ships may not be able to be refit successfully to meet that demand.
Another example is the expansion of deck features onboard today’s cruise ships. Thirty years ago, most ships only had basic deck activities – pools and whirlpools with just one or two waterslides, a miniature golf course, perhaps some game courts for shuffleboard, oversized chess, or ping pong, and a jogging track for the fitness-minded.
Today, the most updated, innovative cruise ships have much more adventuresome options on the open decks, including multiple waterslides and splash pads, roller coasters, go-kart tracks, climbing walls, zip lines, multi-use sports courts, ropes courses, surf simulators, observation pods, and much more.
Smaller, older ships will not have either the deck space or the internal support structure to be upgraded with these modern attractions. The same goes for new spa facilities with extensive thermal suites, elaborate dine-in kitchen extensions, or multi-level lounges with integrated LED screens and convertible stages.
In rare cases, damage might lead to a vessel being scrapped. All ships suffer gradual decay due to saltwater corrosion, constant rocking motions, pier contact, rough water, and other natural forces. Cruise lines perform regular maintenance to mitigate and repair this damage, allowing the vessel to keep operating safely and efficiently.
If damage is severe, however, it might be impossible to repair. This could happen with disastrous situation such as a hard grounding on a hidden reef or other obstacles that might tear into a ship’s hull. Similarly, a bad collision with a dock, another vessel, or in a narrow passageway could severely damage a ship to the point where it is best scrapped.
Fires can also cause irreparable damage to a cruise ship if they are not contained quickly, or if related smoke or water damage is too severe for standard renovations.
At times, a cruise ship’s unfortunate history might lead to the difficult decision to scrap the vessel rather than update it.
If an already older ship, for example, were to be the scene of a crime, an accidental death, a disease outbreak, or criminal investigation, it is possible the cruise line might choose to scrap the vessel rather than take additional steps to extend its lifespan. In these very rare cases, the bad publicity the ship has sustained is unlikely to be overcome by any upgrade.
Along the same lines, bad publicity from customer reviews of an older ship – when guests are dissatisfied with the outdated vessel – might factor in to a decision to scrap a ship rather than pursue further renovations.
There are times when a cruise ship will be scrapped even if the vessel could still have usable lifespan. If a cruise line is in desperate financial condition, the quick sale of a ship to a scrapyard might create enough capital to pay off debts or liquidate enough assets to continue company operations.
Along the same lines, if a cruise line is prepared to declare bankruptcy, scrapping a ship may be a court-ordered step toward repaying creditors, refunding booked guests, or otherwise settling debts.
Beginning to Scrap a Cruise Ship
When a cruise ship is determined to be at the end of its operational life, and no sales may be forthcoming, it is time for the ship to be scrapped. Even a small cruise ship is comprised of several hundred tons of metals and other materials that can be sold, bringing in some profit.
Materials are often recycled as well, and in some fashion, part of older, beloved cruise ships may one day become part of a new, modern vessel.
The first step in scrapping begins even while a ship is still in service. Any usable or proprietary materials, such as extra dishes and linens, commemorative plaques, or replacement supplies may be gradually removed from the vessel as it completes its final sailings.
Practical items may be transferred to other ships for use, or may be put into storage for future use. Some cruise lines may auction off commemorative items for partnered charities, or items may be gifted to cruise line partners, executives, or other notable figures as thanks for their service related to the soon-to-be retired ship.
Once a ship completes its final sailing, more items will be quickly stripped from guest staterooms and public areas. Crew members will be transferred to other ships or assigned to other positions with the cruise line, or may have finished their contracts just as the ship finishes its passenger service.
A skeleton crew will remain onboard the ship as it begins its final journey toward the scrapyard.
Where Cruise Ships Are Scrapped
There are many different cruise ship scrapyards or ship breaking facilities around the world. The most prominent scrapyards that dismantle cruise ships include facilities in:
- Alang, India
- Aliaga, Turkey
- Gadani, Pakistan
- Chittagong, Bangladesh
Smaller ship breaking yards are also found in Belgium, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Many yards are equipped to handle different types of vessel dismantling, and have different capacities for how many ships they can handle based on vessel sizes and the complexity of different projects.
The work is dangerous and often highly regulated to ensure safety not only to the workers deconstructing the ship, but also to protect the local environment and habitats as ships are dismantled.
Still, ship breaking exposes workers to a wide range of potential toxins from the materials used in ships, including asbestos, lead, heavy metals, and other chemicals, as well as risks of explosion and other industrial accidents during a vessel’s disassembly.
The Scrapping Process
Once a ship reaches a ship breaking yard, the vessel is officially turned over to the scrapyard’s authorities and is no longer an asset of the cruise line. The ship’s marine transponder is typically deactivated at that time, as the ship is no longer an active vessel.
Any further removable items will be taken from the ship first, and any items that might still be able to be sold are removed, often by small retailers who make a modest living selling or recycling such material.
This can include light bulbs, fans, and any remaining dishes, linens, mattresses, or similar items that were considered too outdated to be removed earlier.
At this time, parts of the ship’s superstructure begin to be broken down. Any materials above the waterline, such as antenna fixtures, waterslides, windows, and more will be removed as much as possible while the vessel is still floating, so long as it is safe to do so.
When space is available, the vessel will ultimately be beached at the ship breaking yard so the lower hull can be broken.
At this point, little remains of the ship’s internal structure, as much material has already been removed. The hull is then broken into recyclable blocks of metal, which will be sold or melted down for future uses. Eventually, all parts of the ship have been disassembled, and the cruise ship is no more.
Recycling for Future Ships
The vast majority of the material that makes up a cruise ship will eventually be recycled. From items the cruise line removes in the early days leading up to a ship’s retirement to the final hull plates at the ship breaking yard, materials can be reused.
Metals will be melted down and further refined to be remade into new hull plates or other items, and may eventually become part of newer, more modern ships.
Many other materials go on to other industrial uses as well, while nostalgic and commemorative items may live on in cruise line headquarters, be displayed on newer vessels, or showcased as memorabilia in museums or private collections.
The process of scrapping a cruise ship may take just a few weeks, depending on the ship’s size and the work schedule at the scrapyard, or could take several months or even years before the last vestiges of the hull finally vanish.
Many people are involved in the process along the way, and it can be an emotional journey for those with strong connections to a vessel.
Ultimately, however, the cruise ship will live on, not only in recycled or reused materials or memorabilia, but in the memories and hearts of the thousands or millions of passengers who sailed on her.