QE2 sale to US could see liner become floating motel

THE QE2 could soon be swapping caviar and lobster for burger and chips after it was announced that the world's most famous luxury liner is to be sold to an American company.

Cunard, the shipping line that owns the vessel, is set to be bought by an American consortium for $400m, prompting fears that the great symbol of British culture could be transformed into a downmarket floating motel.

The ship's new owners will be headed by the Miami-based Carnival Corporation, the world's biggest cruise company, that has been largely responsible for the transformation of the luxury cruise into a mass-market package holiday.

At present Cunard is Norwegian-owned - a result of the pounds 900m takeover of Trafalgar House, the British conglomerate, by Kvaerner, the engineering and shipbuilding group, two years ago.

With an annual profit of pounds 500m, Carnival carries more than one million passengers a year and its customers are as likely to be young single twentysomethings enjoying a rowdy "booze cruise" as they are to be wealthy pensioners.

And an afternoon's entertainment on one of its 37 ships is as likely to consist of a round of mini-golf, gambling on the one-armed bandits or splashing around on the giant water slides as it is sipping tea and eating scones on the deck.

Industry commentators now fear that the QE2, which was launched in the late Sixties and regarded as the epitome of style and elegance, may face a less than fitting retirement.

Nick Foulkes, who is a writer and luxury travel expert, said: "I understand that Carnival operate some kind of floating Las Vegas around the Caribbean. This is all very well for those who enjoy these things but I am not one of them.

"I don't know what plans Carnival has for the QE2. For all I know they may be planning to make it more English than Merchant Ivory. Then again, it might be like putting Quentin Tarantino in charge of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"Panama hats will be replaced by reverse baseball caps, blazers by bomber jackets and afternoon tea by what I believe is known in America as `fast food'. It is all very worrying."

Peter York, the style guru,fears that the consequences of the deal, which will be formalised in the next six weeks, could be the opposite.

He said: "They may exaggerate its Britishness in a horrible theme-park way that will make it less British than ever.

"They may try and turn it into something from an Agatha Christie novel with ghastly dressing up and `quaint' rituals that date back earlier than the Sixties ... This is another sad example of the English selling off their trophy brands."

But Eric Flounders, a spokesman for Cunard, says the ship's many fans have nothing whatsoever to fear.

He said: "Carnival have made it quite clear that they intend all Cunard's ships to remain five-star and we believe this deal is very good news.

"The most important thing is that, unlike before, we will now be run by a company whose principal business is cruise ships and which plans to invest a lot of money in us. This can only spell a brighter future."