A group of Finnish property developers are determined to change the elite hospitality business one port at a time.
Photos Courtesy of Sunborn Hotels
Gibraltar’s first luxury hotel wasn’t built in the 2.6-square-mile British Overseas Territory favored by gamblers and sailors. The 189-room property was constructed in Malaysia, floated across the Bay of Bengal, around India, and through the Suez Canal then bolted to the main dock in Ocean Village Marina with six eight-ton hydraulic arms. After that, it was really just a matter of plugging in the first boat hotel created by the Sunborn Group, a Finnish development company with big plans to dock luxury hotels in ports all over the world.
The idea of converting ships to floating hotels is hardly new. Long Beach has the Queen Mary; Dubai has the Queen Mary II. But Sunborn is doing something different. The $200-million Sunborn Gibraltar and the Sunborn London, which was built for an undisclosed amount and will open at Royal Victoria Dock on September 1, aren’t retired ships. Sunborn’s yachts may float, but they don’t belong on the open ocean.
“We aren’t in the business of renovating old cruise liners,” explains Andrew Shaw, Sunborn’s marketing director. “All of our ships are purpose built to be hotels. [Other boat hotels] were originally designed as ocean-going ships so the guest rooms onboard tend to be quite small, whereas our yachts are designed firstly to suit their locations as hotels, with a big selection of suites with their own private terraces and outdoor living areas.”
To move the 465-foot-long Gibraltar from Southeast Asia to the Mediterranean, Sunborn had to gingerly place the boat on the deck of the world’s largest transport ship. The hull of the floating hotel, which has its own engines, wasn’t in the water until after it made its way across the Alboran Sea. It was – to put it lightly – a hassle, but by avoiding the costs and constraints of building on land, Sunborn can focus on luxury and attack otherwise difficult markets.
“In historic locations in Stockholm or St. Petersburg or Venice, there are places where you can’t build a property because of restrictions due to historic significance,” explains Shaw, “But we can put in a floating hotel and take it away and there’s not a footprint at all.”
And while the yacht hotels are located on the water, he says they function the same ways as a building on land, connecting to electric and water supplies as a regular hotel would. In a place like Gibraltar, where there’s almost no available land, this makes perfect sense and appeases the people determined to protect the historic waterfront. If push comes to push off, the hotel’s captain can motor to a different nearby port. That said, he’d rather not because the cargo is rather delicate.
The chandelier hanging in the reception area of the Sunborn Gibraltar, constructed from 70,000 individually cut crystals, is worth over a million dollars and the floor to ceiling windows that let in the clear Mediterranean light and sparkling blue waters (and would never meet structural regulations on a true ocean-going yacht) aren’t ideal for taking a broadside hit from whitecap. Flooding would potentially destroy the marble bathrooms, the heated floors, and the comfortable king beds. The amenities, unlike the boat, might not be seaworthy.
“You aren’t competing for square meters the way you are on a cruiseliner,” says Shaw.
The custom nature of each boat hotel and all the furnishings isn’t slowing Sunborn down. The company plans to open the Sunborn Barcelona not long after London starts welcoming guests. After that, Shaw says Sunborn yachts could be headed to St. Petersburg, Stockholm, New York, Rio de Janeiro, or Havana. It’s an optimistic list, but, if those destinations don’t work out, the company knows it can always deliver a luxury hotel to the yacht-loving ports of the Middle East. Las Vegas - not so much.
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