How China is helping SunStone Ships grow

Niels-Erik Lund, founder and president of SunStone Ships, tells Lindsay James why he has turned to China to help the company expand its fleet and stay ahead long into the future

How China is helping SunStone Ships grow
SunStone have ordered four new expedition cruise vessels from China with an option for six more
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Currently the largest tonnage provider within the expedition cruise market, SunStone Ships has earned itself an enviable reputation. Niels-Erik Lund, founder and president, says that the company’s success comes as a result of understanding its key strengths and focusing on them.

“As a continuation of International Shipping Partners, SunStone is not a technical management company,” he explains. “SunStone is in fact a tonnage provider with the commercial management of passenger ships, where, on behalf of the owners, we arrange purchases and charters of their ships, as well as the sale of a vessel if an owner wants to sell.

“We do not get involved in river or coastal vessels,” he adds. “While we only commercially manage passenger ships, over the years we have managed other types of passenger vessels, from large passenger ferries, large and small cruise ships to ro-pax. Basically we will take on the commercial management of any ocean-going passenger ships.”

SunStone’s existing fleet is mainly within the expedition cruise market, which Lund says is a very hot segment at the moment. “There are no vessels for sale or available and the 10 vessels under our management are all committed on charters, most being long-term charters through 2020 to 2021,” he explains.

With this in mind, the company has decided to order a series of four new expedition cruise vessels from China, with an option for six more. “We believe that with existing market conditions, over a three to four-year period we will order all 10 vessels,” Lund says. “There is quite a huge interest in these expedition vessels from existing clients, as well as clients not currently on our roster. Aurora Cruises in Australia is the first charterer to be announced, taking delivery of one of the four new vessels in September 2019.”

While SunStone is the first company of its type to place firm orders for cruise vessels in China, Lund is certain that the decision is the right one. “We have evaluated this situation very carefully, and for a long time have worked with China Merchants Industry Holding on building the vessels at one of its shipyards,” he explains. “We are certain the vessels will be of a very high quality as the agreements include an equipment package agreement with Ulstein, Norway, who will purchase all equipment, from main and auxiliary engines and propellers to bridge equipment, which will be sourced and acquired in Europe and delivered to the Chinese shipyard. Ulstein will supervise the hull and technical construction of the vessels, a company which has previously supervised 45 vessels being built in China with its patented X-Bow.”

The interior construction of the new ships will be managed jointly by the shipyard and Makinen in Finland, a large contractor renowned for building cabin and public spaces onboard cruise ships. “For many years SunStone has used Makinen for interior work and we are very pleased that it will be responsible for all interior spaces,” Lund says. “Meanwhile, Tillberg Design US, who we have worked with for more than 20 years, will undertake the interior designs.”

While Lund acknowledges that there are quite a lot of newbuilds on order for the expedition market, he is confident that the market won’t become saturated. “We do not believe this will be the case as the existing fleet of expedition vessels is a little less than 40 ships. This fleet is, on an average, more than 28 years old and, over the next 10-12 years, most of the vessels will have to be scrapped. This market segment is also expanding as more and more people have the time, money and desire to see parts of the world accessible only with expedition ships.

“It is correct that there is a large number of newbuilds entering the market, but it should be noted that the vessels are all very different in size, style, capacity and onboard product. We believe that a number of the operators who have ordered these ships will be successful, but will be in a very different market segment.”

Lund points towards orders from Scenic and Genting as an example. “These are for very large (approximately 190 metre) expedition vessels with large passenger suites, large numbers of restaurants and bars, helicopters, and submarines. These companies will most likely be highly successful, but we do not see them competing with our clients’ market segment.”

Indeed, SunStone is keen to differentiate itself. “We are building premium to luxury expedition vessels,” Lund says. “A vessel just above 100 metres is the right size to go into many of the bays, fjords and so on in both the Arctic and Antarctic areas where larger vessels cannot access. This is what sets us apart.”

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