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Asia travel

Hong Kong at centre of luxury cruise industry’s rapid Asian expansion

Cruise lines targeting the growing Chinese market see Hong Kong as ideal starting point for voyages, and for some, as home port for vessels that are getting ever bigger and better equipped

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 3:46pm

Last week the newly built luxury cruise liner Ovation of the Seas set sail from Southampton, England, on her inaugural voyage. This colossal 167,800 tonne floating palaceisn’t bound for the traditional cruising grounds of the Mediterranean or the Caribbean but the South China Sea, and she docks in Hong Kong on June 17.

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The arrival will be symbolic of a glamorous, multibillion-dollar, leisure industry. Not many have noticed yet, but the luxury cruise business is experiencing an unprecedented boom in Asia and Hong Kong is poised to take full advantage of it.

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“It’s a big business, but people just don’t see it,” says Balwin Yeung of Royal Caribbean International, which owns Ovation of the Seas. The ship’s home port will be Tianjin, near Beijing in northern China, and it will be joining four sister ships operating in the China region, including Voyager of the Seas, which will make Hong Kong its home port from May 17.

“The Chinese-source cruise market is growing [at a] triple-digit [rate] and that includes Hong Kong,” says Jeff Bent, managing director of Worldwide Cruise Terminals, operator of the city’s Kai Tak cruise terminal.

From 2017, Kai Tak will welcome on average one visiting cruise liner every other day, Bent says, adding that Hong Kong remains a “marquee destination” for cruise passengers and an ideal “gateway port” for guests and crewat the end or start of voyages.

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The number of cruise passengers visiting Hong Kong rose by 23 per cent, to 452,768, in 2015 and in 2017, the Kai Tak terminal alone will handle 660,000 passengers.

In March 2016, a record 23 ships called at Kai Tak, including the Oceania Insignia, which is engaged in a 180-day round-the-world voyage starting and finishing in Miami, Florida. Like most luxury liners coming to Hong Kong, it was fully booked.

“Asia is my favourite place to cruise and it’s an easy sell to our guests,” says Jennifer Faust, cruise ambassador for the Insignia.

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The vessel is owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, which opened a new sales office in Hong Kong in March 2016. Its vessel Norwegian Star will make Hong Kong a seasonal home port, with its maiden call in December 2016, and a new ship dedicated to the Chinese market, Norwegian Joy, is scheduled to enter service in June 2017.

Faust says an Insignia guest would need about US$9,000 to enjoy the Opulence of the Orient cruise – and opulence is the word: exquisite works of art hang on the ship’s bulkheads, dark wood panels line dining rooms laid with Versace dinner plates, and each lavishly furnished state room opens out to its own balcony.

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With 68 chefs to serve about 600 guests and 27 different martinis on offer in the bar, there is no shortage ofchoice.

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Previously, the Ocean Insignia targeted affluent retirees in the West, but Faust says more of her passengers are now coming from Asia.

“There are some guests that I will see five times in one year,” she says, as a string quartet provides subtle musical accompaniment for passengers enjoying afternoon tea, the grey Hong Kong skyline their backdrop.

“This is our eighth cruise and we have been to Hong Kong many times,” says Floretta ‘Pinky’ Crabtree, from Fort Myers, Florida, who is travelling with friends. “We love Hong Kong. It’s very clean and we love the people.”

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Fellow passengers Cathy and Brian Gibson, from Burnaby, near Vancouver, say they recently booked 16 cruises over the next two years – a practice not unusual in the current cruising boom.

While cruising is growing everywhere, its rapid growth in Asia is creating a luxury “arms race” to offer a new generation of opulent ocean liners fitted for every imaginable leisure pursuit. Demand is largely fuelled by a surge in Chinese outbound tourists, who are discovering a passion for cruising.

“We had 2,500 Chinese guests in 2009 when I joined the company. It was 50,000 the next year and then doubled every year. This year, we will have 770,000 guests,” says Zinan Liu, Royal Caribbean International’s president for China and the North Asia-Pacific region.

Liu reckons that within a few years, China may be the world’s second largest market for cruises, after the United States.

Zheng Weihang, executive vice-president of the China Cruise and Yacht Industry Association, was quoted in a Maritime Executive report as forecasting that the number of Chinese cruise tourists would more than double to 2.5 million by 2020, from an estimated one million in 2015. He suggested the figure will swell to as much as seven million cruise passengers by 2030.

The widely reported economic slowdown in China does not seem to have given pause to major cruise operators. According to the Cruise Line Industry Association, a total of US$6.5 billion is being invested in new cruise ships in 2016. Worldwide, cruise companies have committed to building 52 new ocean liners between now and 2022, and most will be heading to Asia.

“Believe me, no one in the industry is jittery at all,” Bent says.

It is not just the Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise lines that are in bullish mood, opening local offices and introducing new ships. In November 2015, Genting Hong Kong (parent company of Asian cruise holiday pioneer Star Cruises) launched a premium line called Dream Cruises to target the luxury sector in China. Its first ship, Genting Dream, will debut in November 2016.

Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise operator, announced that its 2016 China deployment will include two vessels from Princess Cruises as well as four from Costa.

It seems no one is holding back on investment in the Asia cruising boom, and much of that expansion strategy involves Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is a great Point A to start and end cruises – there are great attractions, good air links, easy transport, good hotels, it’s easy to get around,” Bent says. “It’s very much about Hong Kong.”

Other major players seem to agree. Liu, of Royal Caribbean, notes that 100 million people live within two hours’ drive of the city, and says: “Hong Kong people are well-educated and confident with Western culture and Guangdong people are traditionally more internationally connected, so we believe Hong Kong has potential.”

This is partly why the company made Hong Kong one of its three home ports on the Chinese coast, along with Tianjin and Shanghai.

Steve Odell,managing director Asia Pacific for Norwegian Cruise Line, has a similarly positive view of Hong Kong’s place in the new maritime boom.

“Everyone has their eyes on Asia but the limitation is where the ships can go. Hong Kong is a gateway that has Kai Tak and Ocean terminals, which is good for our smaller boutique ships where luxury customers want to be close to the city.

“We can move passengers in and out easily here; the city speaks for itself and is also popular with North Americans and Europeans,” he says.

We can move passengers in and out easily here; the city speaks for itself and is also popular with North Americans and Europeans
Steve Odell

No expense is spared on the facilities and entertainment aboard this new generation of vessels aimed at the Asian traveller. Asian passengers generally don’t want to fly, prefer shorter cruises and they expect lots of high-quality action and entertainment while on board.

At Royal Caribbean, Yeung say part of his job at the Asia sales office is to spread the notion that the growing local cruise market is no longer just about gambling, taking the sea air and eating too much.

This season about half the guests on the 138,000-tonne Voyager of the Seas will be Hongkongers, and the ship is loaded to the gunnels with the latest in cruising activities. These range from an ice-skating rink, in-line skating track, rock-climbing wall and full-size, open-air basketball court to a television studio and Broadway-style shows every night.

With about 40 per cent of Asian cruise passengers under 40 years old, it’s a younger, more energetic demographic. “You need to think of these ships as huge floating family resorts,” says Yeung, who reckons multi-generation trips will become increasingly popular.

Having Hong Kong as a home port is essential because, without the need to fly, cruises remain affordable, he says. Fares on Voyager of the Seas average about HK$6,000, includingaccommodation and food.

Bent argues the home port is a very important concept for the wider economy too:

“Frequent home ports are good for the local industries supporting ship calls.”

These range from harbour pilots, tug crews and ship agents to the taxi drivers, shop owners and tour guides catering directly to the needs of well-heeled guests.