Forging ahead with small-ship luxury expedition cruising

Niels-Erik Lund explains how SunStone Ships is developing after the challenges of the pandemic

Forging ahead with small-ship luxury expedition cruising
SunStone Ships was able to sail four trips around Iceland during the summer

By Alex Smith |

For shipowner SunStone Ships, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a testing time. Like the rest of the cruise industry, it has had to deal with a long period of disruption, during which its ships have remained laid up in port. And though the progress of vaccination programmes around the world has begun to ease pressure somewhat, the very specific and remote areas in which its expedition ships usually sail means that this disruption is still ongoing. 

“At the moment, we do not have the option of operating in the areas we would normally visit,” says Niels Erik-Lund, CEO of SunStone Ships. “Canada, for example, has closed its borders for oceangoing ships until February next year. We did manage four roundtrip cruises around Iceland and had hoped to continue the season with sailings to Greenland. Unfortunately, Greenland has not opened, and we had to cancel the rest of the season. In total, we have had three seasons so far without operation, which has been very difficult.” 

However, this has not stopped the shipowner from looking towards the future. Construction has continued on the Infinity-class series of ships, with the latest ship to enter service being Ocean Explorer in July 2021. After departing the shipyard in Haimen, China, she sailed to Poole in the UK for her inaugural cruise. She has now been redeployed to America,, before eventually moving to Antarctica at the end of the year. 

“Ocean Explorer will do a number of trips from Boston, Massachusetts, down the east coast to Nassau in The Bahamas, before going down to Antarctica for the winter,” explains Lund. “Antarctica would normally be our busiest region, with up to eight ships operating in the area, but we were not entirely sure if the season will go ahead. However, Argentina has indicated that it will open up its borders, so we’re hoping for a good season ahead.” 

Despite the recent crisis caused by the pandemic, Lund remains confident that the expedition cruising sector will only continue to grow in the future. He suggests that guests from a wider range of regions are becoming interested in exploring the remote regions that SunStone’s vessels visit.  

“Since 2004, it has been our strategy to focus purely on small-ship, luxury expedition cruising,” he says. “Going forward, we will continue to maintain this focus, as we believe that more and more people are becoming interested in this type of cruising. On the one hand, this is driven by growth we’re seeing in new markets such as China and India, as well as continuing growth in the traditional American and European markets.”  

Furthermore, the guests who are looking to take a cruise onboard an expedition ship are beginning to change. SunStone has seen a shift in the demographics of its passengers over recent years, moving the sector out of a reliance on a narrow age band and towards broader appeal. 

“Looking back just 10 years ago, most of the passengers onboard our ships were between the ages of 65 and 75, which is quite a narrow band,” says Lund. “However, we’re now seeing expansion among both younger and older people. This goes down to couples of between 35 and 40, who have more interest in seeing the remote areas of the world that we visit. However, we’re also seeing people over 80, or even over 90, as people of that age become more active than ever before.” 

Even further into the future, SunStone is now planning for the construction of another new ship design. The Boundless series vessels will be slightly larger than the Infinity series with capacity for between 200 and 260 passengers, matching the size of some of the ships in the shipowner’s legacy fleet. 

“We are looking to replace these vessels with a series of modern ships of a similar size,” says Lund. “We are in the final stages of the specification right now, and our plan is to negotiate a framework agreement with a shipyard for up to 10 of these ships, similar to the agreement that we have for the Infinity series.”

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2021 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.   

Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door. 

Contact author


Subscribe to the Cruise & Ferry newsletter

  • ©2024 Tudor Rose. All Rights Reserved. Cruise & Ferry is published by Tudor Rose.