HNA, the mainland airline, hotel and property group, will launch its passenger cruise business tomorrow when its first cruise ship starts its maiden revenue voyage from Sanya to Vietnam.
The move comes amid mounting interest by cruise lines in Asia and especially China, although senior industry executives said there was a raft of challenges to overcome.
William Ng Ko-seng, the chief operating officer of Star Cruises which is managing the ship, confirmed the HNA liner, Henna, would set sail on a series of cruises lasting four or five nights. The initial trips will be between Sanya, Ha Long Bay and Da Nang.
Ng said the ship, which can carry up to 1,965 passengers and is the mainland's largest cruise liner, is being managed on behalf of HNA Tourism Cruise. HNA is expected to redeploy the ship by the summer to launch cruises between Tianjin and South Korea.
"I am sure they will grow," Ng told delegates to the Seatrade Hong Kong cruise forum, adding that "in a short … time Hainan will be a very busy [cruise] hub".
Pointing to the growth of the cruise industry in Asia, Liu Zinan, chairman of the Asia Cruise Association, told the forum the "potential is huge".
Pier Luigi Foschi, chairman and chief executive of Carnival Asia, expected seven million cruise passengers would come from Asia by 2020, adding he "could be wrong, it could be 10 million".
Foschi confirmed that Princess Cruises, one of the cruise companies controlled by Carnival, the world's largest cruise outfit, was opening an office in Hong Kong. Industry insiders said this showed Princess was serious about developing its Asian business from Hong Kong, especially as its US$500 million cruise liner Diamond Princess would make four visits to the Kai Tak cruise terminal between October and April 2014.
Princess Cruises will deploy its 1,990-passenger Sun Princess to Asia this year, while Costa Crociere, also part of the Carnival group, will add a second ship, the Costa Atlantica, to the Asian market from May. But the ship's home port will be Singapore rather than Hong Kong.
Foschi said Carnival was eyeing the development of cruise-focused resorts in North and Southeast Asia. He said the Asian resorts would need hotels and beaches along with infrastructure to handle the cruise ships.
Foschi outlined a number of challenges in developing the cruise market in Asia. These included persuading people in Asia to take cruises and getting travel agents to understand what cruising was about. Other challenges included infrastructure issues and the difficulty people had travelling outside their own country.
Antonio de Rosa, vice-president of Asia fleet operations at Costa Crociere, echoed the view, describing the immigration approval process for mainland passengers to visit Taiwan as "a complication".
Jeff Bent, general manager passenger services and director of cruise projects at Worldwide Flight Services, said Beijing was in the final stages of clarifying arrangements for mainland cruise passengers to join passenger liners in Hong Kong for voyages to Taiwan and beyond.
Commenting on infrastructure issues, De Rosa thought some spare sea freight capacity at ports, including in southern China, could be converted relatively cheaply for cruise ship use.
Lee Tai Hsin, president of the Taiwan International Port Corp, said US$300 million was being spent to build two cruise centres at Keelung and Kaohsiung.
Lee said the corporation, which was formed recently to take over the operation of Taiwan's leading ports, was "planning to change some of the cargo terminals into cruise terminals".
Other cruise experts at the forum questioned if there were sufficient destinations for Asian cruise passengers.
Liu said that while Hong Kong "is one of the key cruise destinations", the "shortage of destinations [in Asia] was one reason why cruise lines don't put as many ships in [the region]".
He thought there was scope to develop cruise itineraries from Hong Kong to locations in the South China Sea, while there were potentially 80 cities in Asia that could be cruise destinations. This needed the "support of central governments of each country to invest in infrastructure".
"Build the infrastructure and cruise ships will come," Liu and others said.