Hotel Ships and QE2 – Preservation versus Practicalities

by Rob Lightbody

2016 was a year of change for many of us, and that extends to the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) which has been languishing in Dubai since her arrival in November 2008. The first significant external changes were made to the ship, should we be concerned, or supportive?

Signs of Hope for QE2

Between 2013 and 2015 she had sat visibly deteriorating in the industrial docks facility while oil tanker workers used her lovely Midships Lobby as their access route onto their adjacent tanker.

QE2 in Dubai on Feb 22, 2014. Photo © Hythe Shipshape on Flickr – used with permission.

However, things have started to look up in the past 18 months or so, and whilst there is still much uncertainty, we have seen some good news for QE2 at last.

By summer 2015, she had been moved to her best position yet – alongside the original Cruise terminal which she herself inaugurated on her maiden call to Dubai in March 1997. Work had recommenced on board, and a new team was in charge. What remains unclear, however, is the size and expertise of the team.

First big changes in her appearance in Dubai

Between May and August 2016, we witnessed QE2’s lifeboats and tenders all being lowered from the ship and placed on the dock. This was the first time since her arrival in Dubai that they’d all been removed at once. We were not overly concerned and assumed they’d be put back at some point, maybe after the hotel conversion was completed.

However, by September we saw that they had also cut off all her lifeboat davits. This significantly and permanently altered the appearance of the ship, and dramatically altered her famous boat deck forever. It’s worth noting however, that these were not the original davits installed in 1968, but during the ship’s 1987 rebuild.

Both photos © Gary Butcher, used with permission

 Memories of QE2’s Boat Deck as was.

For the first 15 years of her life, QE2’s lifeboat davits were painted grey. This, combined with the khaki colour of the boat deck superstructure, made the boats appear to float over the deck and helped give the ship a lower more modern profile and sleek lines.


The lifeboats appear to float over the deck. 1982. © Cunard, with permission


December 2007. Sunshine and the lifeboats’ shade in Zeebrugge © Rob Lightbody

In 2011 when I spent 3 days aboard the ship in Dubai, I walked those decks once again, with the lifeboats above protecting my bald head from the beating sun. In the evening, I sat under them gazing at the Dubai skyline, the hulls of the boats reflecting the light back down onto the teak deck. These are memories that her 2.5 million passengers will share with me.

Dubai, April 2011. Light reflects down from the tenders’ hulls in Dubai © Rob Lightbody

Good reasons to remove them?

Whether we agree with what they’ve done or not, let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes and try to imagine why they’ve altered QE2 like this.

The view?

Michael Gallagher, Cunard’s Historian and QE2 expert, suggested immediately the news broke, that many of the rooms on the upper decks would now have vastly improved views. in fact, he informed us that Cunard had only been unable to add more balcony suites than they did, due to their views being blocked by the boats.

Technical Reasons?

When trying to think of other reasons why they’d do this, I asked former Chief Engineer John Chillingworth if there was a technical reason. Maybe the old and cracked aluminium superstructure was the problem? John knew the ship inside and out, and had thoroughly inspected the ship in late 2012. He said there was no technical reason – and his QE2 Hotel conversion plan had been to retain them.

Deck Space?

When QE2 entered service, she had more open deck space than any other ship in the world. Although it was reduced somewhat over the years, she still had lots of open deck space when she ended service in Dubai. However her boat deck was narrow, especially when passing the davits and their motors. Transatlantic joggers will remember this. This fact, combined with the outdoor lifestyle of Dubai nightlife, is assumed to be their main reason.


The conflict between practicalities and preservation.

So, I can imagine good reasons why they’ve done this, but the problem is that historic objects which are worth preserving are, by their very nature, not very practical objects. This is why most of us drive modern cars and not characterful old ones, and purpose built hotels tend to be rectangular with many identical rooms. Those of us who enjoy classic cars will say that the very enjoyment sometimes comes from how difficult they are to deal with! To attempt to make something more practical, can remove the whole reason you were preserving it in the first place. People upgrading historic old buildings know to be careful to preserve original features and retain character.

Doing it Right – SS Rotterdam


Photo © Rob Lightbody

Having stayed aboard on a few occasions, I believe the wonderful SS Rotterdam hotel sets a benchmark on how to do a hotel-ship correctly. She shows just how good the final product can be, while keeping the spirit of the original ship largely intact. Many of the lessons can be applied to QE2 to retain the charms of a ship with the comforts of a modern hotel.

  • Enlarged modern passenger accommodation, but with original furniture where possible.
  • Engine rooms intact for viewing.
  • The exterior completely unaltered and restored.
  • Public spaces carefully altered, re-purposed or re-instated.

I have reached out to the team which is currently in charge of the project to redevelop QE2, but they did not wish to comment except to confirm work is ongoing, and they don’t wish to say anything “at this early stage”.

They clearly have an epic challenge on their hands with QE2, the scale of the project is the reason nobody’s succeeded with QE2 in Dubai so far. I do wish them well and I still hope to one day stay on Hotel QE2, I just hope they manage to balance the practicalities of running a modern hotel in Dubai, with their treatment of what is still arguably the most famous ship in the world. After 9 years, however, I’m afraid I won’t be holding my breath.

I am interested to hear your comments below, or on our forum. Were they right to remove the davits? Do you think we will see a Hotel QE2 open in Dubai?


Rob Lightbody created The QE2 Story Forum in 2009. Its members have created the 2017 QE2 calendar which is out now, and are organising a major QE2 Conference  in Clydebank for the 50th anniversary of her launch there.


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