The sustained growth of interest in cruise holidays is prompting a search for new destinations as cruise lines expand their fleets and passengers seek out new horizons. The opportunity exists for ports around the world to capitalise on this expanding business, in both established and emerging markets.

As passengers and cruise lines search for new routes and exciting cultural attractions, Asia Pacific is a region that could reap great rewards. A growing number of cruise lines are active in the region, with established destinations such as Singapore and Hong Kong already home bases for ships operated by lines such as P&O and Costa. Australia is also well developed as a destination.

“The widely anticipated growth in Asian cruise business is expected to come gradually, as infrastructure is steadily developed.”

With these bases well equipped and attracting passengers in growing numbers, there is a substantial platform for other destinations in the region to cash in on cruiseship visits. “More capacity is being added, especially in the mass market sector led by P&O and Star Cruises, which is good for everyone because it drives high awareness of the attractiveness of the destination to the benefit of all cruise lines,” says Steve Odell, vice president Asia Pacific for Silversea in Australia. Silversea’s policy for the region is to have one of its four ships, offering six-star luxury European-style resort experience, operating in the region for six months.

In 2006/07 the Silver Whisper will be dedicated to Asia for five months, the Silver Cloud will tour Australia and New Zealand, then Asia for four months, with the Silver Shadow also passing through the region on its world cruise. Chong Chee Tut, chief operating officer for Star Cruises, agrees: “The number of passengers is expected to grow as more new itineraries and destinations are introduced and the awareness of cruising as a good value for money vacation alternative increases.”

However, the widely anticipated growth in Asian cruise business is expected to come gradually, as infrastructure is steadily developed. “The numbers will not shoot up,” believes Miranda Tsang, manager of MSC Cruises Asia. “Cruise business in Asia is still in its infancy, although there is a group of people who are already experienced cruisers. Asians can easily travel within Asia using airlines, and the air fares are very competitive, so unless cruise holidays are as competitive as air packages, the demand will not be that big.”

MCS is one of those lines developing fly-cruise offerings to expand business in the Asian market. “Americans like to fly to Asia to join cruiseships, so if the destinations appeal to them the cruises should sell well,” she adds. “Fly-cruise to Asia is still new to the European cruise market so it will take a while to develop.”

CAPITALISING ON CULTURE AND CLIMATE

Whether steady or rapid, growth of cruise business in the region will come. This is in no small part due to the variety of cultural attractions and the appeal of the weather in the region at certain times of year. “The South-East Asian climate is a major factor, as well as very attractive beach resorts and exciting cities,” says Odell. “The varied culture cannot be overlooked, nor the value for money offered in the ports. Asian countries have high levels of service and quality, and this is also very important, not only for cruiseship ports, but also for pre- and post-land arrangements.” Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.

Chong agrees. “Asia has always had a sense of the exotic for holidaymakers with a myriad cultures, religions and history. Cruising offers an excellent opportunity to visit popular destinations and unique attractions such as Halong Bay in Vietnam and the Lakshadweep Islands along the west coast of India with the recent home-porting of SuperStar Libra in Mumbai.”

Star Cruises considers itself a pioneer in developing the Asian cruise market, and is constantly looking for new products, itineraries and destinations to mark out its offering. “We see great potential in the region, particularly for shorter cruises appealing more to directly to Asian passengers, rather than US or European travellers,” adds Chang.

EMERGING DESTINATIONS – CAMBODIA AND VIETNAM

Among the countries that are attracting a growing number of cruiseships, Cambodia stands out. Silversea is planning to make maiden calls at Kompong Som in 2006, with Silver Shadow and SilverWhisper making four calls between them during the same period.

“Asia – especially China – is what all the cruise companies have their eye on.”

The main appeal is the capital Phnom Penh, though the opportunity to make excursions to the World Heritage site at Siem Reap (Sihanoukville) is also a major draw, given that it is home to the world-famous temple of Angkor Wat, as well as the royal sites of Angkor Thom (Temple of the Trees) and Ta Prohm. “Cambodia will definitely develop further due to its proximity to the main hubs of Singapore and Bangkok,” says Odell.

The destination forms part of trips such as Silversea’s 12-day voyage from Laem Chabang (Bangkok) to Hong Kong, calling at Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, Nha Trang, Da Nang and Halong Bay.

Princess Cruises is another line that is developing a leading role in the Asian market, with two ships operating in the region. It plans to increase its capacity in the region by 25% in 2006/07, and it also featured Cambodia as a new port of call on its itineraries.

Vietnam is another destination highly prized by passengers, with Ho Chi Minh City, which can be easily combined with visits to Cambodia, proving popular.

A 15-day cruise offering from Princess Cruises, for example, starts in Bangkok and ends in Mumbai, taking in Sihanoukville, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Phuket, Colombo in Sri Lanka and Goa in India.

EMERGING DESTINATIONS – INDIA AND CHINA

India is also attracting more cruise line business. The newest ship in Star Cruises’ Asian fleet, SuperStar Libra, is to homeport there. However, the market that perhaps has the greatest potential for growth is China, particularly with the development of a new cruise terminal in Shanghai. “Cruiseships and fleets are getting bigger, and cruise companies require more attractive destinations and itineraries to support their occupancy and loading,” comments Chong. “That’s why new markets have to be explored and Asia – especially China – is what all the cruise companies have their eye on.”

“Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka and China are likely to feature on more itineraries in the next few years.”

Odell agrees: “In the northern part of the region I can see Chinese ports opening up further, especially Shanghai as China’s tourism infrastructure develops and the Olympics approach. The Chinese ports will be more seasonal, though, due to its climate.”

Princess Cruises is also targeting China. Three of its itineraries call at either Beijing or Shanghai, including a 16-day trip from Beijing to Bangkok, taking in Taipei, Hong Kong, Okinawa, Shanghai, Nagasaki, Singapore and ports in Vietnam.

The development of a cruiseship terminal in Shanghai, which began in 2004 and is expected to be completed at the start of 2007, is a major factor behind the widespread expectation that the city will attract more ships and more passengers. The terminal lies on the northern section of the Bund, the Zhongshan Road, which is a wide, tree-lined promenade along the Huangpu River.

The terminal, which will cover 160,000m² and will be 850m long, will be able to accommodate three large cruise liners at a time, or four standard-sized passenger ships. It will give the port the required capacity to host three ships the size of SuperStar Leo, the largest cruiseship ever to visit Shanghai.

Officials in the city hope that cruise business will grow rapidly upon completion of the facility and are already planning a 300m extension to berth a larger number of ships. The current development will feature a modern, four-storey passenger terminal and a large park by the river is also included in the plans, as are shopping complexes, hotels, office buildings, cultural centres and residential property.

Additionally, pressure is being put on local government agencies to accelerate the process of clearing customs for cruise passengers visiting Shanghai, so that the appeal of the new facilities and the city as a whole is not diminished by excessive administrative processes.

SEIZING OPPORTUNITIES

Clearly there is a chance for new ports to find a way onto the itineraries of major cruise lines in the Asia Pacific region. Some have done so successfully and others are likely to follow. However, in order to do so, those destinations must back up the appeal they have in terms of culture and scenery with the right infrastructure.

“Destinations wishing to be chosen by cruise lines must focus on port facilities, and ancillary services.”

While MSC’s Tsang concurs that Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka and China are likely to feature on more itineraries in the next few years, she believes that infrastructure will be the determining factor. “The European and US markets are saturated and facing very keen competition, so cruise operators are all looking for new itineraries to attract more passengers,” she says. “A few US cruise companies have sent research companies to Asia to study possible ports for their itineraries, but not many ports have big, up-to-date terminal facilities.”

Star Cruises’ Chong Chee Tut agrees. “Cruising is relatively new in the region and many destinations do not have facilities that are geared towards cruise tourism, apart from the more established ports like Hong Kong and Singapore,” he says. “Star Cruises’ own terminals in Port Klang, Malaysia and Laem Chabang, Thailand as well as the Star Cruises Jetty in Langkawi Island, Malaysia, have all been specially built for cruiseships. The establishment of proper infrastructure to support the growth and development of cruise tourism, which involves customs, immigration, transport logistics, such as tour coaches, and adequate terminal facilities, will ensure a seamless flow of incoming cruise tourists.”

Odell also agrees that destinations wishing to be chosen by cruise lines must focus on port facilities, and ancillary services. “An efficient tourism structure must involve quality transport, such as coaches and limousines, quality dining experiences, sanitation and the ability to cope with different language needs.”

If destinations can follow the model of Shanghai and invest in facilities and processes that cater for the operational needs of cruiseships as well as the cultural and social needs of passengers, then they stand a good chance of appealing to the growing number of cruise lines operating in the Asia Pacific region. Furthermore, those cruise lines looking to enter the region will need to ensure that they have the necessary local knowledge and expertise, providing, for example, the right blend of local cuisine on board and developing both local and English language skills for staff handling on-board services and shore-based excursions.

With the combined efforts of cruise lines and aspiring destinations, what is certain is that the Asia Pacific region will build on the solid platform of established destinations in Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong to become one of the most exciting cruise markets in the world.