Dubai plans to refit the Queen Elizabeth 2 as a 300-room hotel, ending five years of uncertainty over the fate of the historic cruise liner.
Sultan bin Sulayem, chairman of QE2 owner Istithmar, says the vessel will open within 18 months as the centerpiece of an entertainment village, including a maritime museum, in Port Rashid, where the vessel has been berthed since it was retired from service in late 2008.
The QE2 has since become a Dubai landmark, a visible reminder of Dubai’s overseas spending spree which came unstuck amid the debt crisis of 2009 when the parent of Istithmar, conglomerate Dubai World, said it could not meet its financial obligations.
Mr bin Sulayem led Dubai World’s expansion through the boom into the bust that forced a $20bn bailout loan from the United Arab Emirates and its oil-rich capital, Abu Dhabi.
Dubai’s thriving tourism sector has since led a broader economic recovery in the emirate as the Arab uprising forces tourists to avoid countries impacted by the revolts, to Dubai’s benefit. Cruise liners have been one of the fastest-growing tourism segments in the emirate, the low-tax economy of which was founded on trade.
Mr. bin Sulayem said putting the QE2 to work would help Istithmar reduce the heavy costs of keeping the ship afloat since its acquisition from Cunard for £50 million.
As part of Dubai World’s $25 billion debt restructuring, Istithmar’s assets are to be sold off over the next five to eight years.
Original plans to install the ship as a deluxe hotel on the Palm Jumeirah man-made island development were shelved when the financial crisis struck.
The more modest refurbishment will allow the ship’s original features to define the hotel’s style, said Mr. bin Sulayem.
“We want to preserve its heritage,” he said. “This is an iconic ship and it will be good for Dubai’s tourism.”
Mr. bin Sulayem, a close confidant of Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, said he remains happy with the “wise” decision to buy the cruise liner.
The company is in talks with three hospitality companies, including Jumeirah, the chain owned by Dubai’s ruler, to operate the floating hotel, which includes 17 bars and restaurants.
The industrial location would be “unrecognizable” once the entertainment and retail plans are realised, he said.
The government – not Istithmar – will underwrite the cruise terminal expansion, for which no cost was given.
“Dubai is a viable place, every financial institution is here – financing will be available,” he said.
The vessel, which needs work on damaged drainage and plumbing systems, will also have to pass safety certification regarding asbestos found within its infrastructure.
During the refit, the ship, which was launched in 1967, will also serve as an events space following on from its maiden hosting of a New Year’s party this year.