With Asia opening up to cruise lines, the push to offer new destinations is seeing China become a potential giant of future itineraries, which could also take pressure off congested European ports. Yachts of Seabourn’s Peter Cox, Holland America Line’s Simon Douwes and Royal Caribbean International’s Diana Block tell Ian Duncan why many in the industry are looking east.
In June, leading industry figures will descend on Shanghai for the second Seatrade All Asia Cruise Convention. At the city’s international cruise terminal, they will debate the challenges and opportunities the continent presents. Meanwhile, the governments of Asian nations have been working to set their marketing agendas while making material improvements to infrastructure.
In 2010, Asian cruise passenger numbers are predicted to rise by 40%, topping 1.5 million, and climbing to two million by 2015. Last October, construction began on a $350m cruise terminal in Singapore, and in January this year its government launched a joint plan with Vietnam to promote South East Asian itineraries.
In the same month, Chinese authorities announced an overhaul of the regulations governing cruise ships visiting China. The visa and customs process for cruise passengers will be expedited and foreign liners will be allowed to dock at more than one port in the country during a single voyage.
Chinese companies will also be permitted to operate cruises for the first time, building on the 2007 decision to allow the country’s citizens to holiday on board international vessels.
China’s Culture and Tourism Ministry hopes the new measures will triple the number of cruise passengers visiting the country and all this potential is not going unnoticed by western operators. China’s growing economy means its citizens increasingly have the means to travel and, at the same time, foreign tourists are being drawn to this huge undiscovered land. It is this unique combination that makes the country so appealing to itinerary planners.
Holland America Line’s director of development and itinerary planning, Simon Douwes, recognises the appeal of China and Asia generally. "It’s a fascinating continent and people are attracted to the fact it hasn’t been open in the past," he says. "It’s untouched and there is an awful lot to see: China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand."
Royal Caribbean International (RCI) has already seen significant growth and now has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Diana Block, the company’s vice-president of development and revenue management, admits that China is starting from a very low base. "There was almost nothing in the past," she says. "It’s very new to the market and travel there is highly regulated. It has not been an easy start but we think that, as things change within the country, there will be great opportunities."
The existing regulatory framework is a major problem in setting up operations in the country but Block hopes the recent announcement will boost the nation’s commercial potential. "We believe in a good competitive environment and that it will serve us well," she says. "It’s important to work closely with the Chinese Government so that everyone can move in the same direction."
RCI was surprised to find that shorter cruises aimed at the domestic Chinese market drew great international interest from the US, Europe and Australia. Peter Cox, director of itinerary planning and development at Yachts of Seabourn, understands why this was the case. "As a country and cruise destination, China should interest all of us because of the major role it plays in the world," he explains. "People will become increasingly intrigued by this huge country with such a long history. The interest is in China as a modern state contrasted with its ancient culture."
The major challenge for operators trying to offer European and US guests cruises in China is its relatively limited infrastructure. The government has pledged to develop the country’s ports but much work remains to be done. Cox believes that the cities most accustomed to receiving foreign visitors have made good progress.
"It’s different for the less visited places such as Xiamen, Qingdao, Dalian," he says. "They need to get on the ball. In general they’re modernising very fast but it will be much more challenging to find good guides, for example. They need to not only have a good knowledge of their history but also be able to articulate it to foreign visitors." Unlocking the huge interior can make planning Chinese itineraries difficult, especially compared to the accessible islands of South East Asia and Indonesia. The easing of cabotage restrictions should make costal cruises a viable option but, for Cox, the trick will be to create an extensive package of excursions.
"We bundle Beijing, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall with the rest of the coastal cruise to expose our guests to a mix of cultures," he says. "The aim is to showcase things such as Buddhist temples and traditional cuisine that are very Chinese but are hidden behind a modern façade. It’s not an easy destination but ours are generally well-travelled, worldly guests who want to gain a deeper understanding. Our role is to make the experience interesting and varied."
While Asia is attracting a lot of attention, operators are also being careful to not lose sight of their core markets. Nevertheless, the emphasis on experience is driving itinerary development in this regard. "We cater to all sorts of people who like to explore culturally and historically interesting destinations," says Douwes. "The younger generation wants to explore far-flung places all over the globe."
Ease the pressure
With demographic and market trends pushing the industry to look further afield, there is an opportunity to take the pressure off traditional destinations which are rapidly becoming saturated. Douwes acknowledges that congestion is a growing problem in some of the more popular Mediterranean ports such as Barcelona and Civitavecchia.
"We tend to adjust our schedule for congestion as these places have so much to offer cruises," he says. "It’s not like sailing to a small Caribbean island: you’re sailing to a major destination and they are much better equipped to absorb a large number of visitors."
Block recognises that the postcard locations of Europe are just too big to pass up, so careful planning is key to developing a successful itinerary. "Italy’s not a country where things move real quick," she says, "but we’re really trying to work closely with it for the benefit of the industry. It’s not just us building big ships, everybody’s building them, and everybody wants to be in the Mediterranean.
"We’re looking for alternative locations for ports and ways we can improve the infrastructure in the existing ones so they can handle larger ships on a regular basis. In the meantime, planning well to get the prime berths is essential."
Europe has long been Seabourn’s core territory and the challenge for Cox is keeping the company’s itineraries fresh. "There are about 100 ports in the Mediterranean that we have been scheduling over the last couple of years," Cox explains. "With our smaller number of guests it’s possible to disembark with limited infrastructure. Our ships can anchor quite easily and don’t need a pier to dock alongside in order to be able to deliver a good experience."
As horizons broaden, it’s clear that diversity and flexibility will be the most important trend in itinerary development over the coming years. By continually tweaking schedules it should be possible for the industry to keep repeat guests interested while at the same time seeking fertile sources of new customers. Huge operators such as RCI might have a different emphasis from a niche line such as Seabourn, but neither can afford to let the opportunity pass them by.