New wave of voyagers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 12:00am

AS THE SILVER CLOUD slips away from Ocean Terminal next week, several Hong Kong residents will sip champagne on their private teak balconies, happy to occupy cabins that cost up to $90,000 per passenger for this 14-day cruise to Singapore.

A few hours before the 296 guests embark to be pampered by a crew of 210, travel industry representatives and the media will tour the 'six-star' all-suite vessel to see for themselves why the premier suite can cost more than $300,000 per couple for a trip like this.

But cruising is no longer the prerogative of the rich. Richard Willis, chairman (Outbound) of the Hong Kong Association of Travel Agents (Hata), says Hong Kongers are taking to the seas in a big way on package tours tailored to the pockets of Mr and Mrs Average.

He predicts a 100 per cent increase in bookings by Hong Kong residents this year over last year, and a rise of a further 35 per cent next year.

And to keep the momentum going, a Cruise Day, the brainchild of Willis, was organised at the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai a few days ago. It attracted agents representing 10 international cruise ship companies.

They showcased a wide variety of affordable package options on vessels worldwide, and the region's Star Cruises, which agents say has played a major role in launching the concept of cruise holidays in the SAR, joined the promotion.

Cruising is no longer seen here as something for the newly wed and the nearly dead. Willis said 136 Hong Kongers travelled on one cruise alone with his company, P & O, from Barcelona to Istanbul, this year.

'Not only is there the romantic aspect, but cruises are more cost effective, and people are getting great value for money.'

One of the reasons why the prices of cruise packages are coming down is that there is much more competition. More than 50 new cruise ships will be coming into service worldwide during the next five years. The smallest will be able to accommodate around 2,000 passengers.

There is also a glut of cruise ships operating in the Caribbean, according to agents here who represent some of the larger lines. Up to eight ships leave Miami every day on cruises, and the prices have fallen considerably, they say.

In 1993, an International Cruise Council (ICC) was set up in Hong Kong to promote cruising. It didn't work out. The idea of a cruise failed to turn people on, and the ICC was scrapped.

Then ironically, along came the Oscar hit Titanic and suddenly it seemed everyone in Hong Kong wanted to take a cruise. Now Hata has picked up where the ICC left off, taking cruising under its umbrella, and has invited former ICC members to come on board again.

Karl C K Wat, of Sightseers (Hong Kong), which sells cruises for Carnival, Holland America and Windstar, conceded that rival Star Cruises had set the trend with locals 'testing the waters' on their cruises out of Hong Kong and Singapore.

'Cruising has really only taken off in Hong Kong in the past two to three years, and ironically the film Titanic was the main reason. Chinese saw it as a romantic way to travel,' Wat says.

Since then, Hong Kong movies with a cruise flavour, featuring actors such as Andy Lau, had become local favourites, giving the travel industry a boost. The average age of passengers used to be more than 60, said Wat, but now people in their 30s were booking cruise packages.

Brian Smith, a director of Travel Advisers, which is based a stone's throw from Ocean Terminal, will be among the guests who will inspect the Silver Cloud on December 8, before its very well-heeled passengers embark for their cruise to Singapore.

His company is the sole agent here for the Florida-based owners, Silversea, who operate three other small, all-suite vessels at the top end of the luxury market: Silver Wind, Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper.

Silver Cloud guests will be offered complimentary Moet and Chandon champagne and fine wines throughout the voyage. The vessel boasts five different classes of suites.

The cheapest, the Vista suite, goes for up to $74,000 per person, but Smith's Hong Kong clients are opting for the Veranda class, with a top price of around $90,000. Prices vary depending on advance payment discounts and whether air tickets are needed.

'The economy is picking up, and the wealthy are prepared to spend a lot on a cruise, but they are doing it quietly. They don't want to be seen to be spending money. They don't want to flaunt it,' says Smith.

But Smith, who used to head the now-defunct ICC, is not just selling cruises to the wealthy. His company is also benefiting from the increasing demand for affordable cruise packages.

And he says there is also a growing demand for off-beat, soft adventure cruises. For example, a Russian ice-breaker is transformed into a cruise ship for visits to the Arctic Circle when the winter is over. Cruises to the Antarctic are gaining in popularity, too.

Among the bread-and-butter voyages for agents are cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska (where the number of ships are now limited to protect the fragile environment), Mexico, the Mediterranean and, of course, Southeast Asia. Hata says the most common cruise holidays last from seven to 10 days, and Mediterranean cruises can be done in as little as two weeks with air-cruise options.

Passengers can cruise out of Hong Kong and return by plane, fly to the destination and return by ship, or fly to the embarkation city, and return by air from the final cruise destination.

If it's Tuesday it must be Italy, the joke goes about coach tours Hong Kongers take through Europe, and Hata representatives at the Cruise Day promotion are quick to point out that cruising has none of the stress associated with those package tours.

Coach package deals were cheap, visitors were told, but they were rushed, and entailed packing and unpacking each day at new hotels, and early departures. So just how affordable are cruises? We checked out several which are being offered by international cruise lines through agents here. Prices are on a twin-share basis.

Seven nights on the QE2 from Hong Kong to Vietnam and Thailand in March next year, with economy class air ticket back to Chek Lap Kok, is $12,880, and there's a five per cent discount if passengers book and pay a deposit by December 15. The price includes all meals and on-board entertainment. Further afield on the QE2, a six-night transatlantic voyage between London and New York, with air tickets, costs from $16,999.

Fly to Los Angeles, spend three nights in hotels, take a four-night Carnival cruise, and then a three days/two nights tour of the Grand Canyon. Prices start at $10,590, air fare included. Carnival also has fly-cruise packages with seven nights cruising in the Caribbean and two days' hotel accommodation in Miami from $13,999. Air tickets are valid for 45 days and stopovers in San Francisco or Miami are allowed.

A 12-night cruise with a state room and balcony on board the Celebrity Cruises' Millennium costs $21,000 plus port fees of $1,599. Air tickets are not included with this one, but are easily arranged. The vessel leaves from Barcelona and makes calls at Nice, Naples, Venice, Greek and Turkish ports. The cruise ends in Istanbul.

The Seabourn Sun will cruise for seven nights between Naples and Barcelona next June and the special cruise fare is around $6,650, a 40 per cent discount. The five-star vessel will also cruise for 14 nights next August through the Norwegian fjords, and another discount offer is around $19,800. A free cabin upgrade is also promised. Air fares are not included.

There are countless options through local agents, many with special discounts for early bookings.

Cruising is making waves, and Hata hopes this is just the beginning, with a new terminal for passenger liners still under discussion.