Viking on pace to sail four-ship ocean fleet by 2017

By Tom Stieghorst
VikingStar-renderIn a move that mirrors its lofty ambitions on the rivers of Europe and Asia, Viking Cruises has ordered a second pair of 928-passenger ships for its ocean cruise line even before the first two ships in its fleet, commissioned earlier this year, have been delivered.

The order, with the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy, puts Viking on track to be operating a four-ship ocean fleet by mid-2017.

While this kind of rapid expansion is unusual for an ocean cruise line, Viking has been cranking out vessels for its river cruise segment at a breathless pace for the past few years.

At a recent keel-laying ceremony in Venice for the Viking Star, the first oceangoing ship in the line, the company’s chairman, Torstein Hagen, said its new blue-water itineraries “are selling at an unprecedented rate.”

The 47,800-ton Viking Star is scheduled to sail in Scandinavia and the Mediterranean starting in mid-2015. The ships ordered this week will be the same size and layout as the Viking Star.

Neither Fincantieri nor privately owned Viking revealed what the ships would cost. By way of comparison, the slightly larger, more luxurious 54,000-ton ship being built by Fincantieri for delivery to Regent Seven Seas Cruises in 2016 has a reported price tag of $450 million.

Viking Star will be the first oceangoing ship operated by Viking Cruises, which in turn will be the first substantial new ocean cruise brand to come to market since the creation of Azamara Club Cruises in 2007.

Viking’s ocean ships will be bigger than ultra-luxury ships sailing for Seabourn or Silversea but smaller than most ships in what it calls its “reference group.” That group includes premium players such as Holland America Line, Princess, Celebrity and Oceania.

The Viking ships will have all-balcony accommodations, a retractable-dome pool and an outdoor infinity pool, a variety of indoor and outdoor restaurants and a snow grotto in the spa.

Viking’s initial order was for two ships (the second to be delivered in mid-2016) as well as options for an additional four. Cruise lines often get better prices by ordering additional copies of a prototype vessel.

Torstein HagenCreating a new ocean line is audacious, but Viking is relying on its experience in the river cruise market, where it is the largest operator. It expects many of its river cruise customers to try its ocean line and predicts that the hotel and food skills acquired on river vessels will carry over to the ocean operations.

Earlier, Viking created a stir by ordering 10 river ships for delivery this year and an additional 14 for 2014.

“When you look at our rate of growth, it’s quite phenomenal,” Hagen said at a May banquet in Los Angeles announcing Viking’s foray into the ocean cruise segment.

He said the company’s river cruise capacity was expanding at about 35% a year, while the ocean cruise industry as a whole is growing about 7% annually.

New cruise lines often build or acquire a few vessels to test the waters before ordering more ships.

Oceania, for example, launched with used-vessel capacity in 2002 and 2003 before ordering its first pair of newbuilds in 2007.

One of the few lines to expand as quickly as Viking was Renaissance Cruises, which took delivery of eight 684-passenger ships from Fincantieri between 1998 and 2001 before filing for bankruptcy in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Many of the eight ships continue to sail for other lines, including at Oceania and Azamara.

At the banquet, Hagen said that in creating a new small-ship cruise line, Renaissance “was onto something good.” After a pause, he added, “That was a long time ago, so we shouldn’t draw too many parallels.”

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.
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