This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver reflects on the announcement that Cunard's Queen Elizabeth 2 would be leaving the fleet and had been sold to new owners in Dubai.
QE2 - Living on Borrowed Time
Cruise News 19th June: "Cunard Line today announced the sale of QE2 to Dubai World, in a US$100 million deal which will turn the ocean liner into a tourism destination at The Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.
QE2 will be delivered to Dubai World in November 2008, where she will cease her role as an ocean-going passenger vessel and be refurbished and adapted for her new home. From 2009, the vessel will be berthed at a specially-constructed pier to create a luxury floating hotel, retail and entertainment destination at The Palm Jumeirah, the world's largest man-made island".
Personally I was not surprised about to read the announcement that Cunard's QE2 was going to be retiring next year. Some Cunard fans however were under the delusion that Queen Elizabeth 2 could cruise forever. The reality of course is that she has been living on borrowed time since she was withdrawn from the scheduled transatlantic crossings and Queen Mary 2 became the Cunard flagship.
While it may be technically feasible to keep a ship in service indefinitely, I suspect that QE2 must have reached the critical-point where her maintenance costs were increasingly eroding her profits. The cost of the compliance with future SOLAS (Safety of Lives at Sea) regulations also likely helped to put a final nail in the coffin.
QE2 was launched by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in September 1967, 40 years ago this year. She is the longest-serving ship in Cunard's 168-year history, and was the line's longest-serving flagship. Since she entered service in 1969, she has undertaken 25 world cruises, has crossed the Atlantic more than 800 times and has carried more than 2.5 million passengers. In 1982 she served in the Falklands War as a troop ship. How much more service could we realistically expect from her?
Let's not forget that when QE2 entered service, cruising was still in its infancy. Ships were still considered to be a viable means of intercontinental transport (by the shipping lines at least) although jet aircraft had already become the dominant means of travel. As a result, event though QE2 was intended to be a replacement for Queen Elizabeth, she was designed to be smaller and operate in the dual role of cruise ship and transatlantic liner. However as the business of cruising has changed over the past 40 years so too have the passengers and their expectations.
QE2 was a 'ship of state' and still is a global icon. Apart from Noah's Ark and Titanic she is surely is the most famous passenger ship in the world. Cunard and QE2 have such a loyal following in some circles that to say anything negative about them is to put one's head above the parapet.
If you have never been on board QE2 you might well expect her to be the ultimate floating palace with the finest food, service and accommodation afloat. The reality is a bit different and since the beginning there have always been those passengers that felt a little disappointed after sailing on her. They sometimes feel that the 'legend' was greater than the 'reality'.
Without a doubt QE2 is still in very good condition. After all she has probably undergone more expensive refits than any other ship afloat. Her public rooms have often been remodelled and endured numerous name changes. The funnel has grown in size, shape and along with the hull has undergone dramatic colour changes over time.
Unfortunately, despite all of the upgrades and refurbishment, she still lacks many of the features that are now regarded as standard on modern ships. In her lower grades some of the staterooms are very oddly shaped and many still include bunk-beds. The lowest grade stateroom on any modern ship is larger and more comfortable than the cheapest on board QE2. She also does not have the many balcony staterooms which are now commonplace on many newer
vessels and extremely popular. In addition QE2's biggest suites have been surpassed in size and facilities on many newer ships. Neither can her show lounge compete with today's
multi-deck theatres that we have become accustomed to.
QE2's on board 'class divide' where passengers' dining room assignments are directly linked to their stateroom grades may sound archaic, but it is in fact one of Cunard's unique selling points. Today this approach lives on onboard the QM2 and will also be found on the newbuild, Queen Victoria when she enters service later this year.
Passengers often pay a higher fare for QE2's most affordable category, Mauretania, than they would for 'one class' dining on other mass-market lines. However the Mauretania Restaurant has only received mediocre reviews on many occasions, yet there is no dispute that QE2's Princess Grill and Queens Grill dining experience is excellent. Everything comes with a cost however, and often the price of Grill class dining and accommodation ends up being more than double that of the 'Mauritania' grade.
Although QE2 is by all accounts an impressive piece of engineering with her powerful engines and a superb ocean going hull, many fans will tell you that it is her onboard atmosphere that is special - not just the steel. No other cruise line markets the sense of tradition and nostalgia more than Cunard. The atmosphere created by sophisticated travelers on a transatlantic crossing or a world cruise is quite different than that found onboard a modern floating-resort. In addition Cunard's entertainment and enrichment program is second to none and provides passengers with a large slice (…or full pie) of culture to complement the standard Bingo and Broadway shows.
If it's any consolation to the former Cunard flagship, she is effectively being replaced by two ships - QM2 and Queen Victoria. Queen Mary 2 now undertakes both cruises and scheduled transatlantic crossings, while the forthcoming Queen Victoria will be dedicated to cruising.
I must admit that I would not have guessed that Dubai would end up being QE2's final destination. Over the past 50-years Dubai's economy was built on the back of the oil industry. However, the reserves are now running low and by 2000 the oil sector accounted for just 10 percent of Dubai's Gross Domestic Product. As result the tourist industry is now the fastest growing sector within Dubai's economy and the government hopes to attract 10 million tourists a year by 2010. With this in mind, huge investment is being made to develop the city's hotel, leisure and recreational infrastructure. QE2 will clearly form a part of this.
The hot, dry Dubai climate will certainly provide a friendlier environment for preservation when compared to the wet climate that Southampton would have offered. Only time will tell if QE2 will succeed in her new home. As contributing editor, Pam Massey observed following the announcement, "Everything else in Dubai is new, state of the art, the most modern, the most luxurious, the most expensive, the largest, biggest, tallest. QE2 is none of these…Will she pull people from the malls, water parks, ski domes etc?"
One of the more interesting aspects of Cunard's press release is that it says that the new owners will maintain the ship's authenticity and recreate her original interiors. If true, this would make her a time capsule of 1960's décor. Hopefully we can look forward to a reincarnation the 'Double Room' with its twin chrome staircases, the circular and rather surreal 'Midships Lobby' with its trumpet shaped column (surely inspired by 2001 a Space Odyssey) and the much missed 'Lookout Bar' on Quarter deck etc.
However, I must say that I find it hard to imagine how QE2 can be converted into a luxury hotel and still maintain authenticity. After all, Dubai has some of the newest and most luxurious hotels in the world, including the sail-like Burj Al Arab, which is the world's only six-star hotel. How can QE2 compete with the likes of that? Ships staterooms are generally smaller than the average hotel room and as already discussed, QE2 has some particular small 'inside' and 'port-hole' staterooms - hardly luxurious by modern standards.
I do wonder how successful she will really be in her new role. Hotel ships just do not tend to be 'cash cows'. Even Cunard's breathtaking original Queen Mary, berthed at Long Beach California since 1967, continues to struggle. Over the years, she has had a number of different owners and her upkeep has proved both difficult and very expensive. I hope that QE2's retirement to Dubai will be a long term project and not just a short stay of execution.