Afterlife of luxury: Cruise ship preservation isn't so easy

By Johanna Jainchill

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The Queen Mary has spent the last 30 years of its life doing what it was not built to do.

The famous Cunard ocean liner dropped anchor here for the final time in 1968. Days later, its five boiler rooms were dismantled forever, and the ship was hooked up to local landside utilities. The Queen Mary is one of very few ocean liners anywhere that has made a successful transition to a second life as a floating hotel and museum.

But the transition has not been easy.

Fans of ocean liners fighting to preserve these relics of the golden age of passenger vessels are learning that the cost of their preservation can seem insurmountable, and the hurdles are many.

Queen Mary HotelThe current plight of the United States and Queen Elizabeth 2 ocean liners illustrates some of the obstacles to preservation, while the Queen Mary and the former Holland America Line steamship the Rotterdam V demonstrate that their survival is possible.

The QE2 was seemingly positioned to end up living a grand retirement as a luxury hotel in Dubai.

The ship, which entered service in 1969, was retired in late 2008 after traveling more miles than any passenger vessel afloat and having carried more than 2.5 million people.

It was sold to Istithmar, the investment arm of Dubai World, a company wholly owned by the Dubai government, for about $90 million.

Unfortunately for the liner, the ship arrived in Dubai just as the world's economy went into meltdown. Dubai was hit particularly hard by the global recession; in November it had to be rescued by neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi with a $10 billion bailout.

Dubai World itself is reportedly laden with an estimated $59 billion in debt. And with Dubai's hotel vacancies up and tourist numbers down, the last thing anyone was going to undertake was a luxury hotel project.

Instead, the QE2 has spent the last 15 months moored in Dubai awaiting conversion. Istithmar tried to send the ship to South Africa to serve as a floating hotel during the World Cup soccer tournament. Those plans fell through for reasons Istithmar will not discuss, and now, the QE2 is rumored to be for sale.

"There are a number of options being considered for QE2," Istithmar spokeswoman Yasmin Attallah wrote in an email. "Istithmar World is considering which option will best maximize value of the vessel."

Cunard would not comment on whether its contract prevents Dubai World from selling the ship or if any other contingencies exist with regard to what it can and cannot do with the vessel.

Some liner buffs have said that the QE2 would be better off if Istithmar ended up not transforming it into the hotel it had planned.

"Dubai's financial crunch offers a silver lining, of sorts," said ocean liner historian John Maxtone-Graham. "Without those excessive millions of dollars to play with, they will not be able to implement their original scheme of expanding cabins into Dubai-style hotel suites."

The intended remodel of the QE2, he noted, would have necessitated raising its decks, removing much of its interior and "rendering the vessel's form and character into something completely alien and unrecognizable to even old Cunard hands."

"Surely the point of preserving an ocean liner is to have it remain as a fond retrospective of what it once was, not a brutalized and anonymous relic," he said.

Queen Elizabeth 2Another ocean liner historian, Peter Knego, agreed.

"What they planned was horrific," he said, pointing to Dubai World's plan to gut the ship and install a glass penthouse in place of its funnel, which would be put alongside the QE2's entryway. "Nothing of QE2 would have been left, just the name."

Knego has for years followed discarded ships to the vessel graveyard along India's Alang Beach, where many of the world's most famous cruise ships and ocean liners are scrapped for metal.

He noted that few ocean liners ever enjoy fates like the Queen Mary's or Rotterdam's. Two exceptions are the Japanese liner Hikawa Maru in Yokohama, and the Chinese liner Sea World in Shekou, which he said is landlocked and was completely rebuilt.

"There really are not any other major preserved ships," he said, adding that he believes the QE2 has only a "50/50" chance of "skipping the scrappers."

"She's in decent shape and still an iconic name," he said. "So if someone had a plan to preserve her in a place people really cared, like Southampton, she could stand a chance."

British ship historian David Hutchings, who has written several books about liners, including the QE2, agreed that the vessel would be misplaced in Dubai.

"She has a wealth of Cunard and also British national history onboard in her artifacts, and this could provide the core to a very fine maritime museum," he said. "But what a Middle Eastern country wants with a bit of British -- a lot of it military -- history is beyond me."

Ultimately, most preservation schemes involve the ships being made into hotels, and there are few major hotel projects around the world being started now.

Dan McSweeney is head of the S.S. United States Conservancy, a group dedicated to ensuring the United States, an ocean liner built in 1952, does not end up in the scrap yard.

The ship has already suffered something of an ignominious retirement since being laid up in 1969. Norwegian Cruise Line purchased the vessel in 2003, intending to operate it as part of NCL America, the line's U.S.-flagged fleet operating in Hawaii.

The United States was docked in Philadelphia in 1996 and has been there ever since. The rusting ship has been put up for sale, and NCL has worked with the Conservancy to try to find a U.S. entity to buy it.

McSweeney understands that the costs for NCL to keep the ship are high, and thus he is focused on making sure the buyer will preserve the vessel, which he describes as the "national flagship" of the U.S.

United States docked in Philly"It has real historical significance," he said. "The hull and superstructure are intact, it still has its steam engines. This is the fastest ship ever built. This thing went faster in reverse than most ships these days can go forward."

Unlike the Rotterdam, the QE2 and the Queen Mary, the United States has been gutted, and none of its original public areas were preserved. McSweeney sees that as an opportunity for its buyer.

"It's not in bad shape, it's in a raw shape," he said. "It's gutted, so the developer will have a blank slate."

McSweeney said New York and Philadelphia have expressed interest in the ship, and he has had several meetings with New York City's Economic Development Committee.

"If branded the right way, a repurposed S.S. United States can help create a vibrant and viable maritime district in whatever city it's developed in," he said.

But McSweeney knows that the cost of such a project would be enormous. He estimated an investor would have to sink several hundred million dollars into the United States' preservation. Beyond that, there are many levels of regulation and policy that would need to be maneuvered for such a project to go forward.

"I look at these not as obstacles but opportunities," he said. "There is a very sizable population of maritime enthusiasts around the world who have a long-term interest in any development project that emerges."

10 years, 240 million euros

McSweeney's optimism could come also from the fact that previous successful liner preservation projects were not easy, and they sometimes seemed doomed.

It took more than 10 years for the foundation that saved the Rotterdam V to see its decks reopen as a hotel, museum and restaurant last month in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where the ship was built in 1959.

Rotterdam VAccording to Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the renovation of the Rotterdam cost its owner, the Woonbron public housing corporation, almost 10 times what it had budgeted for the project. Radio Netherlands said that Woonbron invested 240 million euros (about $327 million) into the project, after initially budgeting 25 million euros. The ship was originally commissioned for $17 million.

Jan Oostrijck, an officer on the Rotterdam for its first eight years at sea who worked for Holland America Line until 1985, was thrilled to see a project he had been part of for more than a decade finally come to fruition.

"We had one aim," Oostrijck said. "To make sure that the ship didn't end at the beach somewhere in India.

"It's the biggest and most modern ship ever built in Holland. We said we would not again let the flagship of the Dutch merchant marine end up as a piece of metal," he said, alluding to the fate of the Nieuw Amsterdam. "Nobody was interested in that ship, and it was dismantled."

The fight to preserve the Rotterdam, he said, "was very difficult." It involved getting hoteliers interested and getting the ship's hometown onboard, as McSweeney is now attempting to do with New York. Without the support of the city of Rotterdam, which eventually bought the ship and granted it a special tax status, the project would not have been possible, Oostrijck said.

Like Oostrijck, most of the original group of people interested in the ship's preservation effort had maritime backgrounds. They traveled to Long Beach to examine the converted Queen Mary.

"It was new for us as officers," he said. "We know all about sailing. We went to Long Beach and saw how they did the hotel."

The Rotterdam is to the 1960s what the Queen Mary is to the 1930s: a well-preserved relic of that era.

Most of its fittings and art are still onboard, and the ship's cabins and furniture are all original.

The Queen Mary is a well-preserved remnant of its era, and due to its placement near Hollywood, it often serves as a movie set for 1930s-era films such as the Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator."

Will Kayne, a former actor who has for 10 years served as one of the liner's "captains" as well as its exhibits coordinator, said that the ship's Observation Bar "is the best existing example" of art deco design.

Walking through the iconic liner, it is clear that this kind of ship could never be built again.

The amount of wood on the Queen Mary alone -- 56 types of veneers, four forests' worth of lumber, according to Kayne -- has not been seen in cruise ship construction for years and would never pass current fire prevention regulations.

The Queen Mary floats in position, anchored along the Long Beach pier. The staff say that the while the ship does rise and fall with the tide, it is so heavy that there is no noticeable movement for guests, even with strong winds. The vessel has permanent connections to the city for water, power and sewer services.

Queen Mary Observation Bar"It might be fair to say the ship doesn't have as much wear and tear to it when it is permanently anchored in port compared to when it was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean," said Bruce Skidmore, the Queen Mary's director of sales. But like a ship at sea, it requires "constant maintenance throughout the year."

"For instance, when we start servicing the wood railings on one side of the ship, by the time we are done, it time to start again on the other side."

The special nature of the ship gives it status as a national monument. That status also makes its operation challenging.

The Queen Mary entered bankruptcy as recently as 2005. It closed for a short time in 1992 and suffered from low attendance during parts of the 1980s and 1990s. The project also saw many changes in management.

Last year, the city of Long Beach once again brought on new management, contracting with Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, which manages the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and Niagara Falls State Park.

The new team, headed by manager Uwe Roggenthien, said the Queen Mary needed "a new vision."

Part of that vision has been the renovation of all of the ship's 314 hotel rooms as well as its public areas, a project that forced the company to walk a "fine line," Kayne said.

"We operate as a business, but there are certain things we can't do," he said. "We can't restructure things. Anything original has to be preserved as such."

Roggenthien added that there is "a big difference between operating a historical icon and a box hotel."

"While there are inherent challenges that accompany a 73-year-old ocean liner, we view them as opportunities," he said.

The Queen Mary's management is working to establish closer ties with the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. They are trying to host more community events and to attract a wider audience.

Currently, most of the Queen Mary's guests are local. The ship is popular for weddings but is renovating its meetings space to attract more business events.

"The challenge is that people have heard of the Queen Mary but they don't understand there is a full-service hotel onboard to utilize," said Stephanie Teichman, Queen Mary's assistant director of sales and marketing.

'Emotionally connected'

Many of the ship's guests are either fans of liners or of art deco, or are simply history buffs who want to see the rooms where Winston Churchill declared D-Day and photos of past Hollywood celebrities on its decks.

Queen Mary with troopsMany visitors have personal connections to the ship. Soldiers who crossed when it served as a World War II troop carrier will come back to see the room they stayed in. It is also popular with people whose family members emigrated to the U.S. in the ship's third-class cabins, or perhaps crossed in luxury.

"They are emotionally connected to the ship," Roggenthien said.

Yet, the inescapable truth about much of the fan base of these liners is that they are aging. Those with a close ties to the liners won't be around much longer.

McSweeney said he and several other United States Conservancy volunteers have personal connections to that ship. A volunteer's grandfather designed the ship.

McSweeney agrees that part of motivating support for such projects means getting the younger generation to care, something he is already witnessing.

"We've increasingly seen many younger people develop a passion for liners, in our case the S.S. United States, because they admire the ship's history, design and engineering," he said. "This is happening to the extent that we've had several teenagers contact us wanting to model the ship for computer gaming. It's heartening to know that these ships are so timeless."

The sleek design of the Rotterdam's website, more boutique hotel than historical relic, indicates they are targeting a new generation as well.

One initiative the Queen Mary is launching is a community garden on the ship in which local high school students would work.

The preservationists share the hope that more people will board these ships for the same reason two writing instructors at the University of California, Los Angeles visited the Queen Mary did last month: to see things, "as they were."

"We come to get away," said Judith Prager, a local who along with her husband, Harry Youtt, spends about three nights per year on the Queen Mary. "It's a mini-vacation to another time and place.

"For us, it's wonderful to see things as they were."

Queen Mary timeline

Dec. 1, 1930: Keel laid at the John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland.

May 27, 1936: Departs Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage to New York. The ship held the fastest crossing time for 14 years, until July 1952, when the United States beat the record.

March 21, 1940: Departs New York for Sydney to be fitted as a troopship for World War II.

July 25 to 30, 1943: Carried the greatest number of people ever on a floating vessel: 15,740 troops, 943 crew. Total: 16,683.

April 1966: Cunard announces that the ship is for sale. Next year, sells it to Long Beach, Calif., for $3.5 million.

Dec. 9, 1967: Arrives in Long Beach, is removed from British registry and turned over to the city of Long Beach. Becomes dependent on shoreside utilities.

Feb. 20, 1972: Largest attendance in one day: 19,600.

Nov. 2, 1972: First 150 hotel rooms opened.

Dec. 31, 1992: Closes when the Walt Disney Co. gives up its operation of the property.

Feb. 26, 1993: Reopens to the public.

2005: Operators file for bankruptcy, owing $3.4 million in back rent.

2009: Delaware North Cos. Parks & Resorts takes over management; begins extensive ship renovations and upgrades.

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