Cruise ships roll out all things Chinese to tap China market

Royal Caribbean's latest megaship, Ovation of the Seas, was christened in China last year by actress Fan Bingbing.
Royal Caribbean's latest megaship, Ovation of the Seas, was christened in China last year by actress Fan Bingbing.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BEIJING • Ms Liu Jing wakes at seven, feeds her 84-year-old mother and two-year-old grandson, then spends the day watching the boy play in the playground, with breaks for meals and his afternoon nap and perhaps a little television in the evening.

Ms Liu, 57, is on board the Costa Atlantica, a luxury cruise ship packed with activities and events that she largely ignores.

"I just don't have time to do all these," said the Beijing resident, who sailed with her husband, grandson and mother from Tianjin port late last year. "Everywhere you look on the cruise, you see middle-aged people like me, with small kids."

Lines including Royal Caribbean and Carnival have sent an armada of luxury vessels to China to tap the world's fastest-growing market, but they face turbulent waters. Besides satisfying the tastes of Chinese passengers, they sail in the shadow of the region's increasingly volatile politics. And soon, a new threat will emerge - Chinese companies building their own big ships.

"Right now, it's a learning process," said Mr Ken Muskat, chief executive at SkySea Holding International, a Shanghai-based cruise operator. "Everybody is adapting and learning more about what the Chinese market is looking for."

The number of passengers in China has risen tenfold in five years to about two million last year and the government expects 41/2 million by the end of the decade.

Most make shorter trips - five days on average - and call in South Korea and Japan, the top two destinations in Asia outside of China, according to industry body Cruise Lines International Association.

With so much potential - China is still nowhere close to the 11 million-plus Americans who cruise each year - companies are bringing bigger and better ships to the Yellow Sea, tailoring their offerings and seeking new destinations in an effort to persuade Chinese travellers that a cruise is more than just a form of transport.

Royal Caribbean's latest megaship, the 4,905-passenger Ovation of the Seas, complete with indoor skydiving and robot bartenders, arrived at its new home port of Tianjin on May 4 for the summer season after being christened in China last year by actress Fan Bingbing. On a deck, a sculpture of a mother panda reaches out to her cub on the deck below.

But before China's newbie cruisers adapt to life on the ocean, the cruise lines first have to adapt to local tastes. And that starts in the kitchen. "Whether it's rice and congee for breakfast or different types of seafood for lunch or dinner, they're sticklers for the authenticity of Chinese cooking," said Mr Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean.

For entertainment, out go the Broadway-style shows beloved in the Caribbean and in come flashy Chinese song-and-dance hits and local celebrities.

SkySea invited The Voice Of China candidates to perform and staged the Miss World China beauty pageant final on its ship Golden Era, which can carry 1,814 people.

Royal Caribbean last year invited crosstalk artist Guo Degang to perform on Ovation of the Seas during the ship's inaugural visit to China last year.

But perhaps the biggest difference in the country is that cruises are often a multi-generational holiday.

"Chinese cruise travellers are very family-oriented," said Mr Muskat, whose SkySea counts Royal Caribbean and Chinese online travel service International as major backers.

"They like to spend a lot of time with their family, whereas in North America, you can put the kids in the youth programme for seven days and not see them again."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'Cruise ships roll out all things Chinese to tap China market'. Print Edition | Subscribe