What Happens to old Cruise Ships?

Cruise and Maritime Voyages MV Marco Polo a Anchor in Cobh, Ireland

Hey Owlets,

If you follow me on Instagram, then you’ve probably been following me on a rollercoaster of emotions over the last few months. There simply aren’t any words to describe the state of the cruise industry at the moment - the best you could do is just one giant question mark or “ask me again later”. We’ve seen three cruise lines go bust, multiple cruise lines start sailing again when the advice (at least from the UK government) is not to cruise under any circumstances and, most upsettingly in my opinion, we’ve watched cruise lines dumping ships from their fleet left, right and centre in a desperate bid to not only save money but make a bit of money while the rest of their business at the mercy of COVID. 

In July 2020 Cruise and Maritime Voyages declared bankruptcy, and having sailed on both Columbus and Marco Polo I felt my heart snap in two. CMV were known for buying up old-fashioned ships that would otherwise have gone unwanted, meaning they had a quirky little fleet of ships that all had their individual personalities. Now these ships have been orphaned, I’ve had a lot of messages asking what happens to ships that no one wants - it’s not a quick answer so it felt like a good topic for a blog post. It might take a bit of explaining but I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible in case you’re not a cruise nerd like me!

P&O Cruises MV Ventura anchored off Torbay near Torquay during the pandemic
P&O's MV Ventura at anchor in Torbay

How Does the Cruise Ship Market Work?

The first thing you need to understand, if you’re not familiar with cruising, is that there are two kinds of cruise line. First of all you have the big name brands that commission ships to be built specifically for them - think P&O Cruises, Carnival, MSC or Royal Caribbean. They pay millions of dollars for a ship that’s made almost specifically for them; there are classes of ships, almost like models of cars, which is why you might see two ships owned by different lines that look identical (take a look at Sapphire Princess & P&O Azura - different cruise lines but near identical ships), but a lot of the time the bigger cruise lines will have a new class of ship designed for them (think Virgin Voyages Lady class ships). If you’re feeling nosy you can look at the cruise ship order book to see who’s currently commissioning new ships.

Once these ships come into service they’ll have a lifespan of anywhere up to 20-25 years with the company that commissioned it, but the bigger cruise lines are always chasing the biggest and best ships and want to constantly be bringing new ships on board to entice their guests to come back because while a lot of guests have their favourite ships that they go back to time and again, a lot of cruisers also want to try lots of different ships and if a cruise line is releasing something new they’re probably going to want to be one of the first to experience it. The trend at the moment is towards bigger cruise ships with more activities and facilities to attract younger cruisers; as new ships come online (go into service) the cruise line will most likely look to offload their older ships, like what sadly happened with P&O Oriana

Even if the cruises on their older ships are still selling well the laws that cruise ships have to follow are continually changing so they would need to pay to bring their older fleet in line with new laws, and they would rather spend the money to entice novelty-obsessed cruisers that may not have sailed with them before, than keeping the loyal customers happy.

The second kind of cruise lines are the smaller, more boutique (and often more budget) cruise lines. You do still get some small cruise lines that commission ships, but we’ll ignore those for the sake of simplifying the explanation. These smaller, more budget cruise lines buy the bigger cruise lines’ cast offs in order to add to their fleet at a much smaller initial cost (it’s £100 million+ to build a ship, but you can buy the smallest or oldest ships from £3million). Cruise lines like CMV and Fred Olsen do this, which is why you’ll see that their ships don’t match. These cruise lines will likely keep the ship running from anywhere until they’re 30-40 years old, sometimes more if the ship has a unique quality or special history. CMV’s Marco Polo is 55 years old, is the only Soviet cruise liner left in the world (her original name was Alexander Pushkin), and one of only a few original cruise liners left in existence, which is why she was kept going.

Cruise and Maritime Voyages MV Marco Polo moored in Cobh, Ireland

Cruise and Maritime Voyages MV Marco Polo in Cobh, Ireland

What Happens to Ships That No one Wants?

To keep things simple, the basic timeline is that a new ship will be sold on ship broker websites, then smaller cruise lines will buy them and run them in their fleet. If no one wants to buy them for their listed price, they will invite offers, and if no one offers a high enough amount then the ships will be sent to auction. It’s here that you might get either a newly formed cruise line (it’s quite common for ships to be bought as floating casinos sailing in international waters around Asia to get around Chinese gambling laws) or an unnamed cruise line buy them who, rather than operate them themselves, will charter (or rent out) the ships to other cruise lines. This allows the charter companies to make money without figuring out the operational logistics and allows the cruise line to bring ships online in peak season for extra capacity before discontinuing those sailings in winter. CMV was a great example of this - they chartered MV Astoria which is the oldest cruise liner in existence, and would run sailings from around March to September under the CMV brand before handing her back to her owners during winter. It also occasionally happens that a historically significant ship is bought and preserved. Ships like Cunard’s original Queen Mary & Queen Elizabeth II and the SS Rotterdam were turned into floating hotels/tourist attractions and no longer sail.

If the ship isn’t bought directly from a broker or at auction, then unfortunately the only option left is for the ship to be sent to the breaker’s yard to be scrapped - however, it quite often happens that scrapyards will bid for a ship at auction, based on how much they think they’ll be able to make from it when they scrap it. It’s standard practice for a scrapyard to bid for a ship, but it doesn’t always work in their favour. SS Norway (originally SS France) was a very famous ship with a huge history - at the time of construction she was the longest passenger vessel ever built- but that didn’t save her from the same fate as so many other ships. She was sold at auction to a scrapyard in 2006, but they tried to take her apart she became known for different reasons. The SS Norway was so well built that it took 2 years for the shipyard to dismantle her (average scrapping time is usually 3 months). It was so difficult to dismantle that the shipyard finished the project at a loss.

Cruise ships in the process of being scrapped at Aliaga shipyard in Turkey

Cruise Ships being scrapped at Aliaga Shipyard in Turkey. Pullmantur Monarch (originally Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas), Pullmantur Sovereign (originally Sovereign of the Seas), Carnival Fantasy, Inspiration and Imagination. Image credit: Reuters

What’s a Breaker’s Yard and what Happens there?

Breakers yards are where ships at the end of their lives are sent to be demolished. Before their final voyage anything valuable is normally removed, although it’s also not uncommon for the ship to be sent as-is, particularly if the cruise ship’s owner has gone bankrupt. The name is normally partially painted over to change the name of the ship so her final voyage under her known name was carrying passengers, not to the breaker’s yard. This is usually done as a mark of respect to the ship after years of service, but this has sadly stopped happening thanks to the pandemic, because changing the ship’s name just isn’t a necessity.

There are several accounts online of a cruise ship’s final voyage being somewhat eery - the only people on board are crew that are essential for operating the ship but all of the furniture remains and it would more than likely still be in a condition to accept paying guests. If you know where to look there’s actually multiple places selling furniture from scrapped cruise ships because the cruise lines don’t care what happens to it. The main ship-breaking yards are in Turkey and India, and once they arrive they’re held at anchor while final checks are made, then they’re deliberately run aground then held in place with chains. At that point, the ship is handed over to the breakers who salvage any materials they can which are then recycled. 

Cruise lines pay for the ships to be broken down, then get money back on the materials being sold. I’m not entirely sure why and couldn’t find out anything while researching, but the bow is normally cut off first, which signals the end of the ship’s life. In some cases (like with the SS Norway which was of historical significance) the bow is saved, but it’s usually just the first thing to be sold at scrap value and/or melted down. The process of breaking down a ship can take anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on the size of the ship. 

Cruise ships in the process of being scrapped at Aliaga shipyard in Turkey

Aliaga Shipyard in Turkey. Credit: Getty Images

What’s Wrong with Scrapping a Ship?

There are two issues with ship breaking - one which is more of a general frustration about waste and consumerism, and the other is the hazard to life. Ships are usually scrapped in places like India or Turkey because the health and safety laws are less strict and minimum wage is a lot lower. When ships are beached, it’s just the bow digging into the sand that’s holding the ship up, and even if the ship is chained into place it’s still incredibly dangerous work. There are hundreds of reports of workers dying while dismantling ships but because, until now, no one cared about what happened to old ships you just didn’t hear about it. 

Sunrise at sea from the aft of MV Columbus in the Atlantic Ocean

What are the Alternatives?

Honestly, there aren’t any. Old ships have to go somewhere and short of leaving them on the side to rust or purposefully sinking them, breaking them down is the only thing you can do. However, there is no need for it to be as dangerous as it is, but by choosing to scrap ships in countries with less rigorous laws the owners save money on labour and infrastructure which is sadly the number one priority in the ship-breaking business.

The issue with the pre-pandemic cruise industry was that it was too buoyant (if you pardon the pun). Cruising was cool, everyone wanted to experience it and cruise lines seized the opportunity to attract a new generation of cruisers, and to do that they needed modern ships with facilities that younger people and whole families could enjoy. Even once they swept the  original old-fashioned cruise ships under the carpet, cruise lines were still in a race to develop the biggest, best and most exciting ships, and the need to constantly out-do their competitors led to having “hangers on”. In other words, the old-style cruise ships that they kept around just to keep the original customers happy. When the pandemic hit these older, smaller and less profitable ships were obviously going to be the first ones to be given the chop in an effort to save money. 

Cruise and Maritime Voyages MV Columbus moored in Gibraltar, UK

Cruise and Maritime Voyages MV Columbus in Gibraltar, UK

The things that I can’t wrap my head around is Carnival sending a 23 year old ship to be scrapped. Just that sentence tells you everything about not just the mindset of the industry but the effect the pandemic has had. I do try to be conscious of what I’m using in my every day life but I’m not one of the people who are brave enough or educated enough to stand up and shout about consumerist culture, but watching these beautiful cruise ships with years of life left in them makes me feel physically sick. I can’t put it into a coherent sentence because there’s nothing I can say other than that I feel sad and guilty that we live in a world where this is considered not only acceptable but totally normal.

Marco Polo is currently up for auction and seeing her across the water from my home every day is gut-wrenching. I chose to live here because watching the ships sail past from “cruise ship beach” makes me happy, no matter how awful my day has been. I know that in this current climate she’s unlikely to sell so when she leaves the port it’s most likely going to be her final voyage, and the thought of waving goodbye from the beach I spotted while on board and named because of her is heart-breaking. I know this is a total U-turn from my usually light-hearted content, but so many of you were asking me for more information and it’s just not a cheerful subject. However, I really appreciate the amount of messages that I’ve had from you thanking me for educating you, entertaining you or just keeping you going while you’re stuck in lockdown with my overly-nerdy cruise ship chat and ship spotting from the beach. 

Love and Feathers, 
 The Owlet ­čĺť 
You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest


  1. This is actually the sort of stuff I geek out on haha! It is scary how quickly they are to be broken up once they appear to have lost use. I agree its a pretty sick indictment on consumer culture.

  2. I always think that Cruise Ships are like floating cities! It's a shame when they have to decommission them but it's good to know that they do recycle some of the parts.

  3. It was really interesting reading about what happens to old cruise ships :) Thanks for sharing

  4. Wow well you learn something new everyday

  5. 2 years to scrap the SS Norway. That's crazy. Also feels wrong that a cruise ship can be scrapped. They're so beautiful. Even the old ones.

  6. Wow,something new to learn every day! Thanks for sharing.

  7. This is actually really interesting to know. Cruise ships are huge, I had never really considered what happens to the old ones!

  8. I sailed round the U.K. on the Marco Polo. It is so sad to think of her in a scrap yard.

  9. This is fascinating and heartbreaking all at once.

  10. I have never actually been on a cruise, but I find this incredibly interesting. I had no idea where the cruise ships went when they weren't needed anymore. It's like anything else really when it no longer serves a purpose.


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