Viking, Ponant push number of cruise ships in pipeline to 100

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Ponant's first of six ships in its Explorer class will be delivered this June.
Ponant's first of six ships in its Explorer class will be delivered this June.

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Plans for eight new cruise ships were unveiled at the Seatrade Cruise Global convention here last week, pushing the number of vessels on order or option to 100 for the first time ever.

The order for two ships for Ponant and an agreement to build six ships for Viking Ocean will make those two operators the capacity leaders in the luxury expedition and upper-premium segments, respectively.

While Ponant celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, Viking Ocean didn't exist three years ago, and its growth has been particularly significant, paralleling the headlong expansion of Viking River Cruises.

Viking sailed its first ocean ship in 2015, and by 2027, if the announced plans come to fruition, it will have 16 oceangoing ships with a total capacity of at least 14,860 passengers. That would make it by far the largest cruise line not operating in the contemporary segment of the market.

The agreement "confirms the extraordinary moment of the demand in this sector," said Giuseppe Bono, CEO of the Italian yard Fincantieri, where all of Viking Ocean's ships have been built.

Bono said that the order and option backlog for 16 ships is the most ever for a single cruise line from a single shipyard.

That record, in part, reflects the scramble for slots at the few shipyards capable of building large and midsize cruise ships amid a consolidation of shipbuilders. The former four builders have been winnowed to two -- Fincantieri and Meyer Werft -- with Genting Hong Kong assembling its own yard capacity from several small builders in Germany.

Cruise lines are pushing their orders and options further out on the horizon to be sure they aren't left in the lurch when they need to grow capacity.

The order book now includes 15 ships this year, 22 next year, 20 in 2020, 14 in 2021, 13 in 2022, five in 2023, four in 2024 and one in 2025. The latest Viking ships to be secured from Fincantieri are scheduled for delivery between 2024 and 2027, but the specific years haven't been set.

The value of the current order book is approaching $60 billion.

To date, Fincantieri has built four ships for Viking. The latest, the Viking Sun, was christened in Shanghai last week. All have been 930-passenger vessels at double occupancy and are nearly identical in design.

Fincantieri said the ships to be built from 2024 to 2027 will be part of "an advanced project based on the successful characteristics of the previous ships, updated and revisited in line with the latest technologies available on the market."

Viking Ocean's expansion is comparable to -- and probably more rapid than -- the expansion of the Viking river cruise operation.

Viking River was founded in 1997 with four ships. Twelve years later, its fleet had grown to 21 ships. But at less than 200 passengers each, those ships were more quickly built and much cheaper than ocean vessels.

Ponant's order expands its Explorer class from four to six ships. The first two, Le Laperouse and Le Champlain, are scheduled for delivery in June and September of this year, with Le Bougainville and Le Dumont D'Urville to follow in 2019.

The two new ships, due in 2020, will be called Le Bellot and Le Surville. All the ships carry 184 passengers. All are named for renowned French voyagers and explorers.

Jean-Emmanuel Sauvee, who co-founded Compagnie du Ponant in 1988 with a group of French merchant marine officers, said the company's vision is to keep its ships small and destination-focused.

"Enrichment and innovation is our raison d'etre," Sauvee, now CEO, said in his first appearance at a Seatrade conference. "This is mainly the purpose of our company."

Ponant officials said the six ships, plus an ice-hardened polar ship expected for delivery in 2021, represent a $2 billion investment.

"At the end of the day, we are the world leader in luxury expedition," Sauvee said, with an expected fleet of 12 vessels and capacity of 2,494 passengers.

The expansions announced by Ponant and Viking are a challenge to competitors in their respective niches. The upper-premium segment was created with the 2002 launch of Oceania Cruises, co-founded by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio.

Oceania now has a six-ship fleet, with no announced plans to build more. Asked what Viking's expansion means for Oceania, Del Rio said, "Oceania is an established brand doing better than ever. It has a unique product proposition that no one else offers today." As for expansion, Del Rio said, "Stay tuned."

Ponant has at least one luxury expedition competitor in Silversea, with four ships, and there are ships being built by new entrants in the segment, including Crystal, Scenic and Celebrity.

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