Aliağa: Where Covid sent cruise ships to die

Author: Calum Brown

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Where do cruise ships go to die? The answer is Aliağa, western Turkey, where an influx of once-revered ships was torn down following the cruise industry’s catastrophic Covid losses

The proud Turkish town of Aliağa may not have sought media recognition for their steady breakers yard, but the coastal settlement hit global headlines during 2020’s Covid-sponsored turmoil.

Workers at the Aliağa shipbreaking yards were more accustomed to regularly demolishing handfuls of battle-scarred cargo tankers. Yet, as the cruise industry frenetically sought cash flow to counterbalance a remarkably turbulent time, the Aliağa port became awash with cruise ships.

Not that these celebrated luxury liners were on tour. Rather, each vessel was destined for brutal cannibalisation amid the yard's scrapping process.

Izmir Province’s main port witnessed the devastating impact of the pandemic on the global cruise industry first-hand. That toll was showcased by the record number of ships beached for dismantling, as reported by major outlets at the time.

Carnival Cruise Line, the world’s largest operator, set the precedence when it revealed that 18 cruise ships would be sold from its fleet; with the majority intended for Aliağa’s metal-hungry graveyard.

Other firms followed the trend, with nine cruise ships torn down in 2020, a further eleven in 2021, and fifteen more in 2022. No less than 35 cruise liners witnessed their death warrants authorised throughout the industry’s cull.

Compared to a solitary luxury liner scrapped in 2019, the contrast was – and remains - alarming. However, you cannot judge the cruise industry too harshly for jettisoning old stock. It really was ‘kill or be killed’ to survive the market-busting onslaught.

Covid-19 devastated the cruise industry, but things have been on the mend. Credit: Shutterstock

Why did so many cruise ships bite the dust in 2020?

As Covid-19 instigated a global pandemic, it quickly became apparent that an extended industry shutdown was on the cards. When operations became suspended in March 2020, packed cruise ships had already been denied mooring at scheduled ports for fear of spreading Covid.

Subsequently, the industry burned through more than £1,000,000,000 each month in lost revenue and extra costs. You read that right. A billion pounds each month.

The swiftly deteriorating financial situation created an untenable environment, where older itineraries became earmarked for disposal amid despairing methods for funds. And that wasn’t just an excuse to clear out old stock, either.

Big names were suddenly declaring bankruptcy and folding into the footnotes of history.

Cruise & Maritime Voyages became the first major line to suffer liquidation
, followed by Spanish cruise provider Pullmantur, before Hong Kong-based Genting (operator of Star Cruises, Dream Cruises and Crystal Cruises) suffered the same fate. Meanwhile, Carnival Cruise Line were hanging by a thread, posting £4 Billion in losses during the second quarter of 2020 alone.

Having decided to sacrifice their older vessels, the market offered Carnival no interest from rival firms. The competition was in the same boat (excuse the pun) and haemorrhaging cash and unable to pay wages, let alone purchase a ship.

As such, swathes of otherwise seaworthy Carnival vessels ploughed towards Aliağa for swift execution. Turkey’s cannibalistic blowtorches awaited.

Cruise ships and cargo tankers clutter the shoreline. Credit: Shutterstock.

Aliağa: What happened at the cruise ship graveyard?

For those £300-million cruise ships sacrificed in the name of survival, Aliağa’s sun-baked coastline marked the end. Having served millions of happy cruisers and traversed the globe, each vessel was then ripped to shreds – deck by deck - upon the cluttered shore.

Each ignoble process commenced with coordination between the ship’s captain and the harbourmaster for a high-speed run to beach the ship ashore.

Once beached, the ship was inspected, and plans were drawn out for dismantling the vessel. The first thing to be removed was the expensive navigation equipment, rendering the ship useless.

Around 2,500 employees operate Aliağa’s 22 dismantling yards, and with each new ship, the majority congregated to remove the interiors - primarily by hand.

With hundreds of rooms on board, this process took considerable time. Everything from beds, chairs, pianos, kitchen utensils, and crockery went to second-hand retailers.

Amenities such as swimming pools and gyms were dismantled first, followed by walls, windows, floors and handrails, before the dangerous work then began on stripping down the hull using chain drives amid various other methods.

Eventually, only the components remained. The ship had finally become annexed into history.

Aliağa's skyline was quickly dominated by the cruise ships destined for scrap. Credit: Wikicommons

Was there money to be made?

Although cruise ships take substantial time and human resources to dismantle, the operation can yield enormous profits for the yards.

While the hardier vessels take a full 12 months to dismantle, the precious steel and other materials typically sell fast. Metals from the ship alone can net more than £4 million in profit when recycled for future construction.

Over a million tonnes of steel became recycled from the Class of 2020, providing the workforce with continued employment and boosting local infrastructure.

Alongside the raw materials, healthy funds can be raised from fixtures and fittings through second-hand sales, with local cafes, hotels and restaurants benefitting from the high-quality fittings. Additionally, collectors often pay good money for life jackets, art, and souvenirs, too.

It’s a dangerous job.

It takes thousands of dedicated workers to tear down each cruise ship, and those devoted labourers face countless hazards while pursuing their work.

Besides running the risk of falling from a great height, inhaling toxic substances, and the threat of falling objects; fire hazards, sharp edges and collapsing floors, the job can catch anyone out.

Then there are the extreme weather conditions to bear, with humidity transforming the yard into a rabid furnace during the summer months. In contrast, the cold winter season ensures that surfaces become even more treacherous.

Adding to that pressure, if anyone makes a mistake while breaking the ship apart, there remains enormous potential for damaging the local environment and poisoning Aliağa’s next generation as well as ruining expensive industrial parts that must be maintained in a specific condition to guarantee future use.

Company bigwigs may gauge the breaking of a ship by monetary value, but the actual cost can be found in the fatalities suffered during the process.

Luxury liners are built to withstand the very worst of conditions, and therefore put up a fight when the time comes to break the structure apart – thousands of ship workers have perished over the decades, especially in Southeast Asia; where dangerous working conditions are infamous.

Ship breaking yards of Aliaga, Izmir, Turkey. Credit: Shutterstock

Why choose Aliağa?

While the shipbreaking profession radiates a bitter image over haphazard and irresponsible humanitarian issues, not all yards operate with such careless abandon. The industry offers many yards where working conditions are taken very seriously; Aliağa is such an example.

Not that Aliağa has always been top of the league. Conditions in the Turkish yard were questioned during the late 1990s, and subsequent reports published between 2000-2004 were less than favourable.

However, these reports served a purpose in forcing the implementation of policy changes to safeguard workers where possible. By 2018, Aliağa yards began to comply with the European Union Ship Recycling Regulation, further enhancing a focus on employee wellbeing and improving the limitation of environmental hazards for the surrounding area.

Aliağa received better drainage systems and new cement floors in the secondary cutting area, moving away from risky cutting operations on an open beach. The yards also procured new oil booms for containing oil spills, a new waste management centre for properly inorganic materials, and they developed a more efficient process for asbestos removal.

These improved practices drew the attention of Carnival Cruise Line directors, and essentially created confidence in selecting two yards for end-of-life ships.

Although, it must be stated, working in the breakers’ yard will always contain risk and long-term exposure to toxic substances is not good for anyone. Each ship contains asbestos in the pipes, heavy metal paints, biological hazards from various sewage tanks, and radioactive material from gauges.

That being said, it’s now general procedure to offer a more considerable pay increase should a person’s tasks prove dangerous.

The Cruise Industry can look forward to a bright future. Credit: Shutterstock

The cruise industry survived

Although Covid-19 caused immense damage then, the industry has since returned to sea in gathering numbers. Media reports pupated a concern that the virus would mutate into an existential threat to the industry, but by 2022, bookings had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

While passenger numbers have become healthier, the cruise lines have yet to encounter the profits enjoyed pre-pandemic.

Any generated profit is fed straight back into the corporate landscape to pay off staggering levels of acquired debt. Selling off certain ships may have created a lifeline, but it was not enough to stay in the black.

The future looks bright, however.

Those 35 cruise ships dispatched to the great harbour in the sky represented the oldest ships still operational, and it was only a matter of time before they became profit-eating money pits.

With those vessels now recycled, cruise lines are tackling the post-Covid environment with a more efficient fleet. The remaining tonnage is modern, chic, reliable and capable of carrying more passengers.

Aliağa continues to churn through the material taken from the Class of 2020, having generated substantial interest from cruise line operators and the public alike. The future of its yard also appears bright.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.