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Chinese choose to take a cruise

Not long ago, most Chinese wouldn't consider a holiday cruise, calling it expensive, boring and pointless. Today well-off families are coming aboard and getting into life on the sea. Michelle Zhang reports.

Luna Xu is planning a summer vacation to Japan and South Korea with her boyfriend. The 26-year-old public relations manager at a French company travels extensively and has been to both countries. But this time, she's going to try something new - and different - a six-day cruise.

"I so much look forward to it," she says, with excitement. "I'd like to watch the sunset with my boyfriend on the deck - just like the scenes from the film 'Titanic.' It would be so romantic, I can't wait."

The trip costs around 6,000 yuan (US$882) per person.

Xu's boyfriend, Jimmy Jin, hopes to meet new friends. "I'd love to meet more friends who share the same taste and interest with us, and try the various fun activities available on the ship."

Nowadays, more and more singles, families, couples, honeymooners and groups of friends are sailing away on vacations.

While traveling by ship has been popular in Western countries for many years, most Chinese people have just started in recent years. In 2003, Hong Kong-based Star Cruises opened a representative office in Shanghai. Since then, international cruise companies such as Costa and Royal Caribbean have launched businesses on the Chinese mainland.

Xu and her boyfriend will board "Romantica," a cruise ship recently introduced by Costa especially for the Chinese market. In six days, the young couple will visit Fukuoka and Kumamoto in Japan and Jeju Island in South Korea. They will depart from Shanghai.

"More and more cruise companies have chosen Shanghai as their home port," says Bao Xia, marketing manager of the cruise department at Shanghai Jinjiang Tours Co Ltd. "You no longer have to fly somewhere first, and take a ship, which explains the growing popularity of cruise trips among Shanghai residents."

In July 2006, Costa Allegra became the first vessel to dock at the Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal. That year the Shanghai Port received 59 international ships and about 80,000 passengers. Last year, there were 188 ships and 180,000 passengers.

This year it's estimated that more than 260,000 passengers will travel through Shanghai Port.

An estimated 66 international passenger lines will depart from Shanghai as their home port this year, as compared with 32 last year.

According to Bao, Japan and South Korea are so far the most popular cruising destinations for Shanghai travelers. Taiwan will become the next hot spot, he says, once the application procedure for Taiwan entry permits becomes easier.

He says most customers prefer short cruises of up to eight days. Cruises are available for any budget, starting from 3,000 yuan. However, most prefer plans at around 6,000 to 7,000 yuan.

"Before, people tended to choose cheaper plans, but nowadays many of them have come to realize the concept of cruising - it's not about saving money but spending a happy, memorable time on the sea," he explains. "It's all about enjoyment. More and more customers are choosing more spacious rooms, such as those come with a balcony."

Star Cruises CEO William Ng describes the group of Chinese people who cruise as "middle-class with a higher income, and they like to travel with the family. For example, young couples will take their kids and grandparents all together at once."

As for travel destinations, Ng points out that most Chinese people prefer places where famous tourist attractions are near the port, and more important, they want time for shopping.

Most Chinese choose to travel during public holidays or school holidays.

Song Qing, 57, took a cruise trip with her husband to Vietnam from Hong Kong during the 2009 Chinese New Year. The retired Shanghai native says that she's addicted to the new mode of travel.

"It's less troublesome as we don't need to worry about packing and unpacking all the time," she says. "You have everything planned for you on the ship, from food to leisure. It is a more convenient and relaxed way of traveling, which I think is perfect for older travelers."

"Once they (consumers) get a taste of cruising, they come back for more," says marketing manager Bao.

Michael Bayley, executive vice president of Royal Caribbean, says that Asia is poised for "an incredible opportunity."

Both Bayley and Ng were recently in neighboring Suzhou city where they attended the All-Asia Cruise Convention 2010.

Ten million out of 330 million tourists from North America travel by cruise ships, says Bayley. "China has the potential of generating around 40 million cruise guests annually by 2020, if the market penetration reaches the level of North America and Europe."

Lu Haihu, chairman of Shanghai International Port Group, which operates the Shanghai Port International Cruise Terminal, says the company plans to work with more overseas cruise companies to bring more luxurious ships and more diverse routes to the city.

After all, a resort just sits there, but a cruise ship will move you.


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