Inside India's maritime graveyard, where cruise ships go to die

·5-min read
Columbus, formerly of Cruise & Maritime Voyages - Midshipcentury.com
Columbus, formerly of Cruise & Maritime Voyages - Midshipcentury.com

One of the most poignant images to illustrate the untimely demise of cruise ships was captured by a drone overhead the Aliaga ship-breakers on Turkey’s Aegean coast in October 2020. It shows Carnival Fantasy; Carnival Imagination, Carnival Inspiration; plus Pullmantur’s Sovereign and Monarch being cut down in their prime. As Covid-19 ravaged the cruise industry, an ignominious end befell these ships – but they were certainly not the last.

In an effort to stem declining revenues, 34 cruise ships were sold or scrapped last year, and this list has grown in 2021. Many miles from Turkey, at a somewhat inconspicuous facility at Alang in the state of Gujarat, cruise ships are queuing up to confront their destiny like hearses outside a crematorium.

At this Indian recycling facility more than 50 percent of the world’s abandoned and decommissioned cruise ships are dismantled in 183 self-contained ship-breaking yards, each employing around 200 to 300 workers who live in shanty towns along a ten-mile stretch of steeply sloping beaches.

Ships arriving at their last resting place depict a forlorn scene. The once immaculate pleasure palaces are rammed at full speed onto the beach during high tide. Their hulls lurch, groan and grind in futile protest as anchors drop, engines stop and power is cut.

When the tide recedes, the first task for the army of scrappers is to cannibalise valuable items including machinery, plumbing, wiring and electronics. All these effects are reused or sold onto brokers who come in search of bargain-priced effects on sale in Alang’s trading posts. Even non-metallic fittings such as lights, bathroom fittings, chairs and crockery don’t go to waste as hotel operators come to the yard to buy useful merchandise.

cruise ship graveyard - Alamy
cruise ship graveyard - Alamy

Once the vultures have carried off their carrion, the carcass is dragged further up the beach. Now workers armed with acetylene torches and pneumatic drills begin to cut into the steel plates. The plunder is sent to local steel plants where it’s melted and refashioned into rebar for roads and other construction projects. Every year around three million tonnes of steel is salvaged from ships broken up at this morose hive of Indian enterprise.

Port officer, Captain Rakesh Mishra, said: “One or two passenger ships get beached at Alang every year. However, the 14 passenger ships that arrived between November 2020 and October 2021 are the highest ever in a single year.”

This bonanza for Aliaga was buoyed by the demise of Cruise & Maritime Voyages last year. Four of their vessels: Astor, Columbus, Magellan and Marco Polo – are currently being broken up in this sombre locale. The fifth CMV ship, Vasco da Gama, received a reprieve when she was acquired by Portuguese company Mystic Cruises at an auction earlier this month.

Marco Polo - Midshipcentury.com
Marco Polo - Midshipcentury.com

Several other cruise companies have consigned ships to this knackers’ yard. Luck ran out for three casino ships: Leisure World, Amusement World and Starry Metropolis. The Gujarati graveyard also saw the beaching of MS Albatros, Ocean Dream; Century Harmony and Karnika. Affection was in short supply for Costa neoRomantica which was supposed to join the Celestyal Cruises’ fleet but instead changed course for Alang to meet the Grim Reaper. Likewise, there was no deliverance for Grand Celebration of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line.

MS Albatros and Grand Celebration - Midshipcentury.com
MS Albatros and Grand Celebration - Midshipcentury.com

Ship-breakers might be striking it rich, but such is the resilience of the cruise industry, global capacity hasn’t shrunk, in fact 2022 will see more accommodation than pre-pandemic levels. This is borne out by 16 ships making their debut next year, several of which have capacities for over 5,000 passengers – such as P&O Cruises’ Arvia.

Sceptics might point out that lesser capacities of older tonnage operated by the mega corps no longer fitted the explicit business model, as such their departure was expedited under the cloak of Covid. Holland America Line downsized its fleet of 14 ships by four; Princess Cruises reduced their line-up from 19 vessels by five; and Carnival Cruise Line disposed of four ships.

Half the world's decommissioned cruise ships end up in Alang - Midshipcentury.com
Half the world's decommissioned cruise ships end up in Alang - Midshipcentury.com

In the UK, the two eldest ships of the Fred Olsen Cruise Lines’ fleet were consigned to the scrapyard and replaced with a swankier, larger capacity duo which had been part of the quartet sold by Holland America Line. These companies are now in a stronger position for a return to profitability in the coming months.

Having claimed CMV as a quarry, the spectre of corporate Darwinism for British cruising has faded into the blue yonder. In its wake, Ambassador Cruise Line has emerged and will offer premium value cruises from Tilbury aboard the line’s first ship, Ambience, from April.

Jalesh Cruises folded in 2020 - Midshipcentury.com
Jalesh Cruises folded in 2020 - Midshipcentury.com

Another venerable name in British cruising has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. Swan Hellenic will build on the cultural expedition cruising ethos they pioneered in the 1950s. The first of the new company’s three ships, Minerva was christened at the end of November and is slated to start operations in Antarctica at the start of 2022.

For almost two years the cruise industry was becalmed in a sea of torpor. No one and nowhere escaped, some businesses clung on by the skin of their teeth, others such as Pandaw succumbed. This river cruise pioneer which operated 17 traditionally styled river vessels across Asia ceased trading in October as the costs of protracted lay-ups and volatile politics in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and India proved prohibitive. Other victims were Pullmantur Cruises, which filed for bankruptcy in June 2020, and Jalesh Cruises, which also folded in 2020.

Now rebooted and in comeback mode, the cruise industry is set to return with a bang next year. Speaking at the ‘Selling Cruise Day’ in Southampton earlier this month, the Cruise Lines Industry Association’s UK & Ireland chair, Ben Bouldin stated: “We’re about to embark on one of the most defining years the cruise industry has ever had. The opportunity for 2022 is vast.”

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