Once gleaming holiday vessels, what happens to ageing cruise ships when they become unseaworthy? Rather than sailing romantically off into the sunset, most get sold for scrap when they’re truly dilapidated, their rusting parts recycled. With an average lifespan of 30 years, around 800 ships are retired each year and anchored on the beaches of one of the world’s three largest scrap yards: Alang in India, Chittagong in Bangladesh or Gadani in Pakistan, where a large workforce strips them.

This has only been accelerated in the past several months as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sent an influx of mammoth ships still in their prime to an early grave. Cruise lines have been forced to cut their losses by any means necessary, ruthlessly downsizing their fleets. While in 2020, it was projected that there would be 32 million passengers aboard cruise ships, the pandemic reduced that figure to almost none, crippling many lines.

Unlike the financial crisis of 2009 from which the industry was able to bounce confidently back, Chris d Craiker, president of the eponymous Californian architecture and planning practice, believes that “continuing pandemic fears could affect the industry for decades”. Indeed, last summer, Carnival Cruise Line sold three of its ships – the 1990 Carnival Fantasy, the 1995 Carnival Imagination and the 1996 Carnival Inspiration; and Pullmantur Cruises sold two after becoming insolvent – the 1998 Sovereign and the 1991 Monarch. All of these have now been retired and broken up, piece by piece.

Riches to rags

Furthermore, there are serious concerns about the environmental impact and working conditions in South Asia’s ship-breaking industry, with toxic waste dumping, and job-related fatalities and injuries among staff cited as urgent reasons to rethink this disposal method. But, until recent years, the alternatives – deliberately sinking a vessel or abandoning it at sea – haven’t been as appealing to vendors. In addition to the lack of financial return, ditched ships can create problems with nearby residents, who consider them to be eyesores, as is the case with Society Expeditions’ World Discoverer, which was left off a beach in the Solomon Islands in 2000; and SS United States, which on its maiden voyage in 1952 proudly broke the trans-Atlantic speed record, and now sits decaying in Philadelphia’s Delaware River. Meanwhile, others are renovated to host booze cruises, idling through the seas with their best years behind them.

In recent years, a number of innovative architects have demonstrated there to be another, more creative option for elderly vessels. In a drive to build more sustainably, designers have been repurposing once-seaborne ships for life on dry land as homes and hotels, to museums and restaurants. In December 2019, for instance, the Oakland City Council negotiated to convert a cruise ship into housing for 1,000 homeless people. “These ships have all the facilities for homeless and working poor families,” says Craiker, who also sees potential in reworked cruise ships for those wishing to downsize their homes “in a dignified fashion”. “Many ships could have a second life as living communities with all the amenities and options of a city,” he says.

But, as Joost van Rooijen, the architect and managing partner of the Netherlands’ Studio Komma, notes, the size and proportions of empty ships are not in themselves suited for long-term habitation. “Repurposing retired ships on land creates an interesting architectural challenge,” he says. “To create spaces that feel comfortable to be in, our floor plans consist of closed and open spaces paired with several patios.” To counterbalance the narrow space of a ship, van Rooijen and his team built upwards as well as inwards for one particular project, shrewdly adding a new elevated roof with a large garden, while reworking the inner walls.

Because the construction methods for shipbuilding are very different from those of conventional housing, van Rooijen has consulted professional shipbuilders for his projects. “It’s steel and curves instead of concrete and orthogonal lines, which forces you to think outside of the box,” he reveals. Moreover, cruise ships are not built like homes: the rooms are designed to be much smaller than normal bedrooms, in order to encourage travellers to spend as little time in them as possible.

Therefore, old ships that have been stripped bare are naturally more versatile than those whose cabins remain in place. “The empty hulls can be whatever you want them to be, which is the beauty of it,” says van Rooijen. “The exterior structure of the steel hull makes the ship also very flexible, so the function of the ship can change over time. We focus on creating houses, but I can also easily imagine art galleries, offices, shops, restaurants and hotels.”

Project restoration

Both van Rooijen and Craiker agree that the most aesthetic option when repurposing ships is to preserve their original features. However, certain issues are liable to arise, making it difficult to do so – particularly when it comes to insulation. “The best way for insulating the ships is on the inside of the steel hull,” explains van Rooijen, “but this insulation hides the beautiful character of the bare steel structures in the interior. That is why we created outdoor patios that don’t have to be insulated within the hull.” Additionally, Studio Komma has used the thickness of the steel windows as a visual accent to enjoy when looking outside. “This is what gives these repurposed ships a truly special look and feel,” he says. “Each has a different character and a story to tell, which is fantastic to show and be experienced by the viewer.” Craiker echoes that a classic nautical theme is the most appealing route to explore. “Considering how quickly these cruise ships become visually obsolete, a retro look might work,” he muses.


The year SS United States broke the trans- Atlantic speed record, the vessel now sits decaying in Philadelphia’s Delaware River.

National Geographic


The number of homeless people housed in a converted cruise ship by Oakland City Council in December 2019.


“Many ships could have a second life as living communities with all the amenities and options of a city.” 

Chris d Craiker

As well as cruise ships, smaller cargo boats are also accumulating at the world’s scrap yards, particularly those of the Netherlands, where beautiful mid-century river cruisers measuring about 70 by eight metres are no longer viable modes of transport because of their relatively diminutive size (as well as the fact that they no longer adhere to the increasingly strict environmental regulations). This, according to van Rooijen, is an enormous loss in cultural and historical value – not to mention those of their materials. “By giving these ships a second life on land, we can retain these values,” he explains.

Some repurposed vessels are left floating, permanently tethered to bays across the world while seeing out their new function. This includes Cunard’s Queen Mary, which now rests in Long Beach, California, having been retired in 1967 and gutted of most of its mechanics.

Now, visitors are able to tour its decks and learn about its past; and it has been used as a film set for over 120 movies and TV shows, including 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, Pearl Harbor and Being John Malkovich. In addition, the famous Queen Elizabeth II was purchased in 2007 for $100m and opened a decade later in Dubai’s Mina Rashid port as a moored hotel with 1,300 rooms, and 13 restaurants and bars – and a museum for a lobby.

“The exterior structure of the steel hull makes the ship also very flexible, so the function of the ship can change over time. We focus on creating houses, but I can also easily imagine art galleries, offices, shops, restaurants and hotels.”

Joost van Rooijen

High-maintenance commodities

Whether on land or on water, both Craiker and van Rooijen agree that the single biggest challenge of repurposing a ship is finding somewhere to place it. The vessels are first renovated and transformed indoors at a shipyard, then transported to a location via water because they are too large to be transported by road. So, a suitable final spot needs to be reachable by water, while taking into account any bridges and sluices along the route. The ships require very large plots of land to be grounded on, and it can be difficult to find areas that are big enough where housing is allowed. If they are to remain floating, the boats require a deep-water port to accommodate them.

In 2020, Ocean Builders side-stepped this issue when it decided to anchor its latest renovation 30-minutes from shore. The company announced it would be transforming the 30-year-old former Pacific Dawn into a giant floating housing complex that would be anchored 12 miles from the shore of Panama City, marketing it as a living and working space for “digital nomads, YouTube influencers and crypto-currency enthusiasts”.

The 804ft, 777-cabin, 12-deck ship offers a microcosm of normal life on land, comprising a range of restaurants and cafés, as well as whirlpools and even a waterpark. However, it remains to be seen whether people would be content living so far from terra firma for more than a few months, and its location undoubtedly poses a challenge when it comes to moving day.

While such enterprises are still very green, and fresh ideas for obsolete titans of the sea are constantly being explored, the environmental benefits to reusing such large commodities are unquestionable. And at a time when the future of the cruise-ship industry has faced inconceivable challenges, one thing is certain: the possibilities for the vessels themselves are endless.