Sunstone Ships, an expedition cruise ship owner based in Miami, has signed an agreement with China Merchants Industry Holdings for the construction of four ice-class vessels, with options for six more. The new 340-foot ships will have 80-95 cabins, a speed of 15 knots, a Polar Code PC 6 classification and an ice class 1A hull; they will feature Ulstein’s patented X-Bow design.
Sunstone specializes in chartering its tonnage to other firms, and it has been planning to invest in new ships under its "Project Unlimited" initiative since at least 2007. "At that time, we were working with vessels that had been built around 1990 – which despite being 20 or more years was still considered ‘new’ compared to the rest of the worldwide expedition fleet," said Niels-Erik Lund, Sunstone's president & CEO, in a recent white paper. “It was our opinion that there would be a major problem finding suitable ships in the future, as cruise industry and passenger demand for these types of voyages was continuing to grow.”
The firm initially sought to buy new polar-capable ships in the 240-passenger size range, and it determined that it had to keep costs below the $100 million mark to stay competitive. That price ceiling wasn't easy to meet at the time, and over the years Sunstone has gone through multiple rounds of discussions with naval architects, interior designers, shipyards and charterers in attempting to lower the construction cost.
Sunstone did not release the agreed contract price for its proposed order with CMIH. While cruise ship construction is an entirely new industry in China, merchant vessels built at Chinese yards have historically had a cost advantage of as much as 30 percent over Japanese and Korean-built ships (depending on the year of construction and the vessel type).
At present, European yards have a virtual monopoly on high-end large passenger vessels, and competitors in other regions have often struggled to enter the market. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries exited the sector after booking steep losses on its first-ever cruise vessels, two newbuilds for Carnival's AIDA division. In 2009, South Korea's Samsung Heavy Industries signed a $1 billion agreement for the construction of Utopia, a luxury residential cruise ship, making Samsung the first company in the nation to attempt to enter the cruise shipbuilding market. However, eight years after the signing, Utopia has still not been completed.
Sunstone is not the first foreign firm to agree to build cruise ships in China: Carnival will build two ships at China State Shipbuilding Corporation’s Shanghai yard, in cooperation with Fincantieri and CIC Capital. They are due for delivery in 2022, and are specifically designed to serve the growing Chinese market.