Asia is a booming market for cruises, with more in the region having the financial capacity to travel. But local travel agents say that international cruise companies need to do more to appeal to Asian customers. 'Some of my Hong Kong and mainland clients take their own instant noodles on board, as even buffets described as 'international' have no rice dishes,' says Alex Lee, general manager of Miramar Travel. 'And, while a growing number of mainlanders are inquisitive about cruises, many are not able to speak or read English and feel embarrassed as they can't read menus or the information provided on board. Some agents have to provide a tour leader to overcome this problem.' The knowledge of cruises among mainland travel agents is low, and there is a lack of information and booking services in Chinese on the internet, so many mainland clients turn to Hong Kong agents for help. Cruise companies, however, are trying to address the language problem and cultural divide. Gerica Ricci, managing director of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia for Italian cruise company MSC Cruises, says that the global downturn, which weakened the United States and European markets, caused a shift in focus for international cruise operators, with many looking to Asia as a new, largely untapped market. Cruise operators are trying to generate strong demand through investing in ships, offices and infrastructure. 'Communication about, and knowledge of, cruises is increasing in the travel industry and this is helping Asians to become more familiar with this type of vacation,' Ricci says. MSC has had an office in Hong Kong for four years, and has an office in Shanghai which controls sales on the mainland. The company is in partnership with TourOperators which distributes their product in Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. 'We are actively communicating and distributing the cruise product in Hong Kong. This involves all marketing activities such as the production of brochures in Cantonese,' Ricci says. The company is also expanding its services for Asians on board. 'The more Asians we carry on our ships, the more we are working to provide the best possible assistance for them,' Ricci says. 'We have Chinese-speaking people on board to help guests with everything they need, from the restaurant to general life on board. We can provide Chinese-speaking tour guides, and we are also capable of customising the product based on the requests of passengers, such as hot water served in the restaurants and buffet area, special menus, and so on.' But, while the cruise business is booming, Lee says it still accounts for less than 10 per cent of his travel agency's income. 'The majority of our business is air-plus-coach tour packages which include shopping,' he says. And, while there is limited shopping on board many cruise liners, other attractions that appeal to Westerners have little impact on Asian customers. 'My clients don't spend time in the cinemas or watching the shows on board, and only half show interest in after-dinner drinks. Hongkongers tend to choose cruises that allow them to gamble,' Lee says.