Chinese develop taste for luxury cruises

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 2015, 5:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 April, 2015, 12:32pm

With their deck shoes and swimsuits in tow, mainlanders are increasingly going on luxury cruises for short vacations, shelling out as much as 30,000 yuan (HK$38,000) for a five-day trip to places like South Korea and Japan.

Global cruise lines have responded by expanding their fleets in China, with two of the biggest names - Royal Caribbean and Carnival - expected to launch vessels on inaugural mainland voyages in the coming months. But the market faces challenges to growth, including government restrictions on how tickets are sold and extensive application procedures for docking rights.

Liu Zinan, Royal Caribbean's managing director for China and Asia, said international cruise operators previously saw little value in the mainland market. But the company was now seeing a "bandwagon effect".

"Apart from traditional customers, the elderly and their families, we have found more men and women aged between 25 and 35, who can afford luxuries, are showing interest in us," he said.

Royal Caribbean, which entered the mainland in 2010, is adding the 160,000-tonne Ovation of the Seas to its fleet next year, taking the total number of ships in the market to five.

Carnival is increasing its capacity by 140 per cent this year through its subsidiary Costa Cruise Lines, according to staff at its Shanghai office, where two of its ships are based. It expects its other ship in Tianjin to make 40 voyages this year, compared with eight last year.

Cheng Juehao, a researcher at the cruise research centre of the Shanghai International Shipping Institute, said Shanghai would become the world's top home port by 2030, with eight to 10 million trips a year. A single individual departure counts as one trip, and an arrival as a separate one.

Official data showed that tourists made more than 1.2 million trips from and to Shanghai's two home ports last year, up by 60 per cent from 2013. Across the mainland, more than 1.7 million cruise trips were recorded last year, growth of 43 per cent from the previous year.

"As products are diversified and visas are more convenient to obtain, various groups of consumers are going to be attracted," Cheng said.

Dr Sun Ruihong, a specialist in cruise tourism at Shanghai University of Engineering Science, said families with young children and newlywed couples would become key segments of the market. "Cruises provide an environment free from distractions and are good for efficiency and cohesiveness," she said.

But she pointed to potential hurdles for operators, including uncertain government policies. "Whether the government is providing continuous support for the cruise industry and loosening limitations will be an important factor," she said.

Sun said these included high port charges, prohibition on operators selling their own tickets - instead they were only allowed to sell them to agencies - and repeated application procedures for official approval when a ship wants to dock at different ports.