Where Cruise Ships Are Sent to Die

Along the meandering industrial peninsula of Aliaga on Turkey’s Aegean coast, the contents of gutted vessels lay strewn on the dusty roadside, scattered among clusters of orange lifeboats that tower so high they obscure the dramatic scene unfolding in the shipyard below.

There, five mammoth cruise ships sit crammed into a muddied cove, as hundreds of workers chip away at their hulls and bows, exposing the intricate anatomies of the boats that once carried thousands of people around the world. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the cruise industry, companies are downsizing their fleets and selling the ships for scrap.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Kamil Onal, chairman of the Ship Recyclers’ Association of Turkey. “Before the pandemic we mainly dismantled cargo ships, but now this has become the fate for cruise ships after months of sitting idle without passengers.”

Among the ships being recycled at Aliaga, are three Carnival cruise liners — Inspiration, Imagination and Fantasy, which had just been refurbished in 2019. The world’s largest cruise company reported a loss of $2.9 billion in the quarter ending on Aug. 31 and announced that it would remove 13 of its older, less efficient ships from its global fleet.

Credit...Bradley Secker for The New York Times

The ship-breaking operation is evidence of how deeply the coronavirus pandemic has damaged the $150 billion global cruise industry. After widely publicized outbreaks on ships worldwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order effective March 14 for all United States cruises, leaving nearly 350 vessels idled in open waters or in ports.

The order is set to expire on Oct. 31, after the White House intervened to keep it from being extended until February. But the C.D.C. recommends that travelers defer all cruise travel worldwide.

“Cruise passengers are at increased risk of person-to-person spread of infectious diseases, including Covid-19, and outbreaks of Covid-19 have been reported on several cruise ships,” the agency said.

The outbreaks took place on boats that had resumed operations in Europe, with heightened health protocols and a requirement for testing, and included eight people on board the Costa Diadema who tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month.

Costa Cruises, which is part of Carnival Corporation, said the incident showed how its safety protocols had been effective, allowing them to detect and safely manage positive cases before embarkation and during the cruise. All major cruise lines with a capacity to carry more than 250 passengers have committed to requiring a negative test before boarding, once the no-sail order is lifted, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s trade group.

Credit...Bradley Secker for The New York Times

A cacophony of screeching metal, banging and clunking engulfs the shipyard as the ships are ripped apart deck by deck, with stateroom walls torn away and the amenities — gyms, theaters, discos — broken into pieces and carted away.

Nearly 2,000 workers have been employed to strip the five cruise ships of machinery, electronic equipment, glass, wood and other materials that can be reused or repurposed.

“Everything is taken out piece by piece, from the light bulb to the piano and swimming pool to the golf course,” said Mr. Onal, looking out his office window at a group of workers cutting metal scraps from the ships. “It’s a momentous task that will take up to eight months for each ship and they will continue until there is nothing left.”

He pointed to a single square of steel bobbing up and down in the water — the remains of an engine room in a cargo ship. “That’s what the cruise ships will look like toward the end,” he said.

Credit...Bradley Secker for The New York Times

After an intensive review, the Carnival Cruise Line group said it had selected two ship-recycling facilities in Turkey to dismantle its ships because of their track records of compliance with national and international environmental agreements, including the Hong Kong Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships. Mr. Onal said there was also a financial incentive because the Turkish recycling firms made a better offer than other global ship recycling facilities, but neither party would disclose how much the shipyard paid.

The shipyard will then sell off the more than 1.1. million tons of steel it expects to remove from the ships by the end of the year.

“Our highest responsibility and top priorities are compliance, environmental protection, and the health, safety and well-being of our guests, the communities we visit and our crew,” Bill Burke, chief maritime officer for Carnival Corporation, said in an email. “That commitment extends to our cruise ships, starting from the moment a ship becomes part of our fleet and continuing all the way through to its retirement.”

Last year, Carnival Corporation and its Princess subsidiary paid a $20 million fine for illegal dumping and other environmental violations.

The contents of the dismantled ships are in high demand among antiques brokers and private collectors in the area, who have been placing bids on the most valuable items.

“Don’t take notice of how the ships look now on the outside,” said Noyan Yurttas, co-owner of the Iskele Marine, a nautical antiques store opposite the shipyard. He was referring to the giant gashes torn out of the ships’ hull. “It’s a treasure chest in there.”

Credit...Bradley Secker for The New York Times

Hotels and corporations have bought most of the furniture from the ships, including tables, chairs and room fittings, Mr. Yurttas said, but antiques brokers have their sights set on the baroque lighting fixtures and wardrobes that weigh nearly 100 pounds.

“These are not regular ships; they are luxurious floating museums with many precious items inside,” he said with an excited smile as he sat in his store full of shiny bronze nautical antiques, including clocks, ornate light fixtures and maps. Other brokers in the area have collected articles like life jackets, lamps, sinks and art for people interested in purchasing cruise memorabilia.

“We have mainly seen local collectors and customers this year because of the pandemic, but normally tourists come here from all over the world to buy the items from the ships,” Mr. Yurttas said.

Photos and videos of the ships’ dismantling have been circulating on social media, and for cruise enthusiasts it has been hard to watch, even from a distance. At 30 years old, the Carnival Fantasy is the oldest vessel in the Carnival Cruise line fleet, and was popular among older people for its smaller scale and familiarity.

“I was heartbroken to see the ships sold off and scrapped like that,” said Maggie Hetherington, 74, a retired nurse from Norwich in southeast England who has taken several cruises on the Fantasy and its sister ship Inspiration. “They look like they’ve been attacked by a pack of wolves.”

Ms. Hetherington said she understood the economic considerations of the cruise companies but believes there will still be a demand for older ships once the pandemic is over.

“Not everyone is into the big new high-tech ships, as impressive as they may be,” she said. “The Fantasy’s décor may be a little dated, but there is something appealing about walking into a smaller ship, hanging your hat and knowing your way around,” she added. “There’s also the element of nostalgia.”

Derek Watson, 69, an avid cruiser from Liverpool in northern England took his first Caribbean cruise on the Fantasy. He said that such iconic ships should be phased out gradually and fans of the vessels should be allowed to take tours or book final excursions before they are scrapped.

“It’s just sad that these ships are being dismantled before having one last hurrah,” Mr. Watson said. “It’s hard to stay optimistic and get excited about future cruises when so many are being retired at the same time.”

When exactly those future cruises will sail is hard to predict. Royal Caribbean Cruises, another of the industry’s biggest companies and which also sent two ships to be recycled in Aliaga this year, has teamed up with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and a panel of medical experts to establish safety measures that would allow cruising to return.

Credit...Bradley Secker for The New York Times

Last month, the panel submitted a list of 74 detailed recommendations to the C.D.C., including testing, capacity reduction, face coverings and enhanced sanitation procedures. The cruise executives said they were confident that cruises could resume safely if all the health and safety protocols were applied.

But the cases aboard the Costa Diadema cropped up despite testing after passengers took shore excursions on the Greek Islands. The guests were asymptomatic and tested positive upon re-entry into Italy.

And the optimistic outlook from executives as they prepare to bounce back from the crisis is at odds with the backdrop of destruction and debris at the Aliaga shipyard. Mr. Onal said they were expecting more cruise ships to arrive over the next few months.

“There’s a lot of interest, it’s going to be a busy year ahead,” he said.

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