Cruise lines riding a wave of popularity in sea travel

More luxury ships and round-the-world packages offered to satisfy growing demand in China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 3:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 2014, 3:10am

Cruise lines are stepping up their presence in China - including Hong Kong - seeking to tap into fast-growing cruise tourism in the region.

Royal Caribbean Cruises will base four vessels at China ports next year, from only two today, the company's biggest deployment in the country so far.

"It will make us the biggest player in China," the company's senior vice-president Dominic Paul said yesterday. "We expect the cruising market [in China] to triple in size in the next few years."

Royal Caribbean and rivals such as Costa Cruises are flexing their muscles in Hong Kong, where the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal has been open for a year.

Royal Caribbean will base its refurbished 3,800-passenger Voyager of the Seas in Hong Kong and increase the number of trips out of the city from four to 21 next year. Costa plans to target long-haul travellers with round-the-world tours in 83 days for up to HK$390,000 a person for the most expensive package.

Paul said the new Quantum of the Seas, the company's second-largest cruise vessel with a capacity of 5,000, would be based in Shanghai next year after its debut in the United States this November. The vessel will sail from New York to China on a 55-day trip in April. "It's the first time for us to put a new, impressive ship in China," he said.

Voyager's sister ship Mariner of the Seas will be based in Tianjin, while the smaller Legend of the Seas will be in Xiamen .

The refurbished Voyager will boast a new surf machine, a big outdoor cinema, new top-end restaurants and "virtual balconies" - screens allowing passengers in cabins with no windows to see what's happening outside. Without spelling out the renovation cost, Paul said the bill for such a project was usually US$50 million to US$100 million.

Voyager's cruises will include Vietnam, mainland China, South Korea and Japan.

The company's expansion comes as passenger numbers in Shanghai have doubled to 800,000 in the last three years.

It now has a market share of 40 per cent in the country and is expecting to expand its dominance in the business.

Short cruise holidays spanning three to eight nights are well received by Asians who have fewer public holidays.

"What's appealing in a cruise holiday is you can pack a lot in one trip," Paul said. " It's particularly popular with our China customers. People are hungry for new experiences … going to two different destinations in five nights."

In the next four years, the company which manages the Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises brands will have three quantum-class ships and two oasis-class ships - the world's biggest liners with capacity greater than 5,000 - on order.

With the increased capacity, the company is committed to development in Asia and other parts of the world.

"To us it's not about moving the ships around … we've new ships coming," he said.

Paul admitted the one-year-old Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is not busy at the moment, but expected the increased trips by Voyager to build momentum. "[Cruising] has worked in Singapore, why not in Hong Kong? I see more potential in Hong Kong," he said pointing to the city's population of seven million and greater numbers in southern China.

Costa is testing the waters by launching the first round-the-world trips from China next year. Boarding in Shanghai or Hong Kong, passengers will be carried across three oceans and five continents and visit 28 destinations in 18 countries and regions in 83 days. Wing On Travel, which sells both individual travel packages and guided group tours for the trip, said prices would range from HK$140,000 to HK$280,000. It is not selling the priciest option.

Deputy general manager Simon Ma Sai-man described it as providing an "alternative" in a city where shorter, cheaper trips to Taiwan and Hainan are the norm. "We would like to attract self-employed businessmen and retirees," he said.

The cruise trip has an appealing price, he added, as a similar 60-day round-the-world trip by air would cost more than HK$500,000.

There has been growing interest in cruising since the Kai Tak terminal opened last year.

Cruise trips from Hong Kong now make up more than half of all cruise tours organised by the agency, Ma said.

While Mediterranean cruises still attract the most attention for locals, there is growing interest in the Baltic and Alaska, he said. In Asia, there are innovative itineraries running from Japan to Russia, he added.