Full steam ahead for cruise fans

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 December, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 December, 1993, 12:00am

IS cruising only for the newly-wed and the nearly dead? Not so, insists Douglas King, executive director of the just-launched International Cruise Council. And this week he is trying to prove his point with local travel agencies.

The Hong Kong-based consortium, which was specifically created to introduce cruise holidays for Hong Kong residents, represents nine of the world's major cruise lines and nearly 50 per cent of the total global cruise-ship capacity.

International cruise companies pay US$10,000 to become council members, while local travel agents pay HK$500.

On Monday, the organisation launched Hong Kong Cruise Week with intensive seminars on the various types of cruise holidays available. Consumer promotions will begin early next year.

Publicising vacations aboard floating sea palaces may sound like a bit of salty fun, but the council has its work cut out: four of every five of the world's cruise passengers are American, and half of all the cruise ships in the world currently confinethemselves to the Caribbean.

Despite this, Mr King is confident that cruise vacations will become a highly popular holiday option for harried Hong Kong residents once they know what it's all about. He is particularly keen to put paid to what he calls the many myths about cruise liners.

''In the old days,'' he said, ''there was the perception 'Am I going to be seasick? Do I have to sit all day baking on the sun-deck? I'm not 85 and I don't want to wear a dinner jacket.' ''I actually think that cruising is an absolute natural for Hong Kong people. It's just never been properly explained and publicised. The assumption that cruise holidays cost a fortune, take for ever and are boring, are all totally wrong.

''What people here aren't aware of,'' says Mr King, who has lived in Asia for more than 25 years and was previously with the Hong Kong Tourist Association, ''is that the average age of cruise passengers has dropped over the past five years from 58 to 43.

''Ships are now all air conditioned end-to-end, and you don't have to sunbathe unless you want to. And, on today's modern liners, virtually no one ever gets seasick! ''If you want to wear a formal dinner jacket there are ships for that. But if you want to walk around in swim trunks and T-shirt, there are cruise ships for that too.

''Imagine this massive resort, taking you from A to B in total comfort and luxury, with specialists in everything from aerobics and health spas, to computer programming and 24-hour gambling casinos. There's tremendous choice. You'd have to be on a shipfor two weeks before you'd begin to get bored.

''There are cruise ships specifically for families, which won't even accept passengers unless they have children.

''There are adventure cruises to the world's most remote places, there are cruises to glamorous islands and ports, and there are special educational cruises, with lectures by famous authors and various experts.

''The beauty of a cruise holiday is that it combines travel with doing things that might not be available at a resort.

''Then, of course, there's the fabulous food - a highlight of most cruise lines, certainly something that Hong Kong people would appreciate.'' The Cruise Council's role, says Mr King, will simply be to 'up' the visibility of cruising to the public through local travel agents.

''We think that once its on the 'menu' of holiday choices for local people, market demand will boom. But at the moment, we're just not on that menu.'' While local demand may not yet have materialised, desire seems to be there.

According to a recent travel industry-sponsored study, 92 per cent of Hong Kong holiday travellers questioned would be interested in taking a fly-cruise package, involving flying to a ship berthed elsewhere. Forty per cent of those questioned preferred acruise directly from Hong Kong.

''When you consider,'' notes Mr King, ''that people in this part of the world like fully-packaged holidays, with comfortable accommodation, lots of good food, the excitement of gambling, it's all there on a cruise ship.'' Considering that Hong Kong residents took an estimated 1.5 million holiday trips last year, but fewer than 8,000 of them booked a cruise, there seems to be whole shiploads of potential for the cruise business.

Hong Kong, however, isn't the only Asian port eager to see more cruise liners drop their anchors in local waters.

Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore is already home port for several cruise liners. ''Singapore,'' says Mr King, ''took the initiative several years ago by putting in an expensive cruise terminal and doing some promotion for the cruise industry. Hong Kong has the Ocean Terminal, but that's privately managed.'' Why don't cruise ships come to Hong Kong more often? ''Until now about 80 per cent of the world's cruise passengers were from the US,'' notes Mr King. ''Most ships thus far have had occupancy rates of 90 per cent. So, it's only natural that most cruise ships have been based near the United States.

''But, as passenger demand grows in places such as Asia, this will certainly change and the liners will surely follow.

''And now, with the traditional cruise markets in America and Europe still in recession, the cruise lines are looking for new places to fill their ships from.

''There is still an immense amount of investment, worldwide, in building new, bigger and more luxurious cruise ships. Ships carrying up to 2,000 passengers will come on line in the late 1990s. And these ships will be looking for new markets.

''So, all we at the International Cruise Council have to do is introduce the product to Hong Kong travellers. I think they're a perfect match!''