China crisis? What China crisis?

BY JOHN HONEYWELL – CAPTAIN GREYBEARD

The cruise industry’s passage to the Orient is going through the sort of bumpy seas that deter nervous passengers from crossing the Bay of Biscay.

Early forecasts were good, and eager executives looked forward to making millions by attracting just a tiny fraction of China’s billions of newly affluent consumers.

Royal Caribbean were the boldest, sending the nearly-new Quantum of the Seas to Shanghai instead of saving it for weekly jaunts to the Caribbean while expecting the Chinese to be awed by the faded charms of older ships.

Next year, a second Quantum-class vessel, Ovation of the Seas, will be sailing from Chinese ports along with Mariner, Voyager, and Legend.

Costa Cruises plans to have four ships – Fortuna, Serena, Atlantica and Victoria – in the region; Princess, another early player, will base Golden Princess in Tianjin and Sapphire Princess in Shanghai. They will later be joined by the latest Royal-class ship – it’s not yet been named, but the keel-laying ceremony in an Italian shipyard was celebrated by a traditional Chinese lion dance.

Latest to join the fray is MSC, whose newly-stretched Lirica is scheduled to arrive in Shanghai on 1 May, 2016.

As the cruise lines are discovering, catering for the Chinese market involves more than just stripping out a burger bar and replacing it with a noodle shop – which is what happened when Kung Fu Panda kicked Johnny Rockets out of Quantum.

West End shows such as Quantum’s Mamma Mia! Have made way for “international” theatre presentations; on Costa this might even involve topless burlesque dancers.

The Chinese itineraries may earn more per day in fares than in traditional areas such as the Med and the Caribbean, and the Chinese passengers may spend more on board – with the casinos and shops making up for lower bar takings – but it comes at a price.

There was near-mutiny when Quantum returned to Shanghai from a weather-affected voyage that substituted ports of call in South Korea for the expected destinations in Japan.

Most of the Chinese passengers expect to spend thousands of dollars in Japanese stores, buying luxury goods, electronics and cosmetics that are far more expensive back home, and some had to be forcibly removed from the ship when their demands for compensation were not met.

The recent devastating explosion at Tianjin port – the closest cruise terminal to Beijing – will be seen as a minor inconvenience compared to the dramatic events affecting the Chinese economy, which could undo many long-term forecasts of growth.

So what do the cruise lines make of it all?

Tony Kaufman, senior vice-president in charge of Princess’s Asia operations, told me: “We believe the desire to travel, specifically the new opportunity of cruises in China, will continue to be a priority for consumers.

“Currently, China represents the largest outbound travel market in the world. We believe in the long-term growth of leisure travel and we also have a long-term commitment to the China market. We try to avoid taking a short-term view based on what the market is doing in one region or another at any given point in time.”

Giles Hawke, UK & Ireland managing director for MSC Cruises, said: “China is, and will remain, a particularly attractive market for leading global cruise lines, especially where they are able to design a product – as we did with our partners – that truly caters for the needs of the local consumer.”

I had hoped to be able to report on the views of Royal Caribbean. Sadly, despite repeated requests, Dominic Paul, senior vice-president, international, was unable to offer any comment. For a moment, I began to understand how those thwarted Quantum passengers might have felt…

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