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Cruise woos Chinese but it's not yet anchors aweigh

LAWYER Cindy Ye, 32, treated her parents and younger sister to a seven-day Alaska cruise last September. The Chinese-American had expected a warm and relaxing family reunion on board since she has only seen her Shanghai family six times over the past 10 years.

The voyage became unforgettable for other reasons and the Ye family case illustrates the issues faced by the cruise industry now trying to break into the Chinese mainland market.

Ye herself, Shanghai-born and now living in New York, loved it -- it was her dream trip, but not her family's.

When she first told her parents, in their 60s, they were worried about seasickness and language problems with the cruise staff. Her sister was worried about what she thought was a frigid and forbidding destination without shopping possibilities.

They all had different definitions of vacation and a cruise.

"My parents told me they were too old for a cruise," says Ye, a first-time cruiser. "They just wanted to rest at home, play mahjong and eat with me."

Her sister loved the idea of a cruise because it was new and trendy, "but she wasn't sure of Alaska. There's no shopping there."

Ye prevailed despite all the family reservations - language, lack of shopping, boredom on board, seasickness, additional costs on board, visa issue, etc. They first flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where they boarded the ship.

Meanwhile, many international cruise companies are trying to persuade more tourists from the Chinese mainland to go on board for a fresh experience, and then return for more.

The Chinese mainland market, taking only single-digit slice of the international cruise market now, has become particularly attractive since the number of traditionally American and European cruise travelers has declined greatly in the global downturn.

For example, the luxury Italian cruise company Silversea saw a 15-percent increase in Asian customers last year. It has already taken the first group of 25 Chinese to the breathtakingly beautiful Antarctic.

But cruise companies must overcome many of the same issues that concern Chinese tourists like Ye's family.

Luxurious voyages are nothing new to wealthy and privileged Chinese, but they have only recently appeared on the vacation option menu for the middle class. They can afford to cruise, but are they willing?

For the seven-day Alaska cruise, Ye tried her best to cheer her Shanghai family up. She treated them to the services, told them the history of and stories about the ports and urged her parents to take short, on-shore trips.

"More than half of the guests on board were closer to my parents' age than mine," says Ye. "We also saw much older couples having fun."

But her parents only left the ship once.

"They consider it a waste to pay to go on a ship to do all the things that we could enjoy at home," says Ye.

Her 30-year-old sister got bored on the second day, despite the calm seas, glorious sunrise and sunsets, beautiful coastlines and amenities.

The hurdles are not easy to overcome, considering the distinctive travel preferences of Chinese and the attractive low prices of air and land travel. It takes a lot of effort to lure middle-class Chinese mainlanders on shipboard, especially since cruises are still more expensive than other travel.

"The majority of Chinese tourists are the picture-taking, shopping and talking type, not the resting-on-the-beach type," says Felix Liu who works in a travel agency. "Plus, price is still a major concern and cruises are usually the more expensive luxury trips."

Many people are attracted by the fresh concept of taking a cruise - they see glamorous cruises in the old movies - but they back out because of the price, says Liu. For example, they ask why they should spend US$4,000-5,000 for a Southeast Asian cruise that stops in Thailand when they can fly directly there.

"They can afford it, but they prefer to go further for the same price," he says.

While a 10-day Mediterranean voyage costs only about US$5,000, it's tedious for Chinese to get visas for all the countries where the ship docks.

Most cruise companies only promote their Asia-Pacific lines for the Chinese mainland, where it is much faster and easier to get visas for Asian countries.

These cruises are usually shorter than those in Europe, since only a small number of Chinese tourists are able to take a vacation longer than two weeks. These cruises involve a lot of on-shore excursions, especially for Japanese and Chinese shoppers; they also satisfy Western curiosity about Asian ports.

Some add mahjong rooms next to their casinos, provide karaoke and fine Chinese food.

The target market in Asia is different from that in the West.

"In the United States, our target customers are couples aged 45 and above, a mix of retirees and successful entrepreneurs, but in Asia our market is younger," says Steve Odell, senior vice president of the Asia-Pacific market for the luxury cruise brand Silversea.

Potential Chinese cruisers tend to be successful business people and young professionals - lawyers, doctors, dentists and accountants - with the money and time to travel.

Odell also finds the younger Chinese tourists are more interested in more adventurous and exotic trips - the most inquired-about voyages from the Chinese mainland are the Arctic and the Antarctic. Three groups of Chinese cruisers are already scheduled to see the polar bears this summer.

The company's twin ships, the Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper, sail regularly in the Asia-Pacific, stopping in many Chinese ports. Silver Shadow left Shanghai two weeks ago, with more Asians on board than ever.

Well-known cruise lines such as Silversea, Royal Caribbean, Princess and Carnival have already set opened offices and hired agents in Shanghai or Beijing.

Since the global slowdown, these companies have all pushed harder in the Asian market, particularly the Chinese mainland, where the cruise business has yet to weigh anchor.

Below the decks

Cruise tourists enjoy the ocean views, pools, spa, gym, casino, movies, shopping and restaurants, but it takes a lot of effort behind the scenes, below decks, to make guests happy all the time.

For a cruise ship of 300-500 passengers, there are at least twice as many crew, ship's hands and service staff. There are many more, of course, for large cruise liners.

The lower decks for crew and staff are far less luxurious (though officers' quarters are excellent), but they too have living areas, a gym, a bar, movies, Internet cafe and other amenities.

In addition to the vast engine room, power plant and water and air purification equipment, there are vast kitchens for different classes of passengers, huge fridges, storage lockers, trash shredders and so on.

Portugal-born Sergio De Moura, in his 40s, has been at sea for 20 years, spending most of the past 12 years on the Silver Shadow, luxury cruise ship of the Italian company Silversea. It carries around 300 passengers.

As Maitre d'hotel, De Moura is in charge of all kitchen services, overseeing the chefs, cooks, waiters and cleaners who prepare food and maintain kitchens.

He says most of the food is stocked before sailing and stored in the deck below the kitchen. Refrigerators are like huge, walk-in safety-deposit vaults.

"We try to get fresh vegetables and fish when we stop at ports, depending on local law and quality of the food," says De Moura.

Local purchase only represents a small portion of the food storage area.

Much is taken up by trash, and stopping in port is an opportunity to offload trash. Imagine how much garbage 500 people create in a day.

The line arranges with local recycling companies to handle the waste. If the ship remains at sea for a long time, wet garbage can be disposed at sea, 19 kilometers beyond the coast in international waters.

Sewage is treated in a special system and then discharged.

Cruise staff come from around the world and spend more time aboard than on shore.

They are often stuck on board for months before they get a long two-month vacation. They do get brief shore leaves.

On vacation, De Moura spends time with his children and when he's on the job he doesn't spend much time ashore.

"With nearly 20 years' sailing with different ships, I don't go on shore excursions anymore. But younger staff, especially rookies, are excited about going ashore," he says.

In crew and staff quarters, they can watch movies, work out in the gym, hang out in a bar or Internet cafe.

Tips for cruisers

1: Companies

Famous and reputable companies include Silversea, Star Cruises, Carnival, Royal Caribbean International and Hurtigruten. It's usually cheaper to book locally than go through a travel agency.

2: Routes

Type to suit personal preference, time available and budget: European routes are generally more expensive than American cruises. Among American routes, there is a line to the Caribbean in the winter, a line to Alaska in the summer and a line to New England in the fall.

European routes include a line to the Arctic Circle, one to the Baltic Sea and one to the Mediterranean.

The arctic line is mostly available in the summer, the others are available all year, though they are cheaper in the winter.

3: Berths

It's more economical to pay for a cheap room on the most luxurious ship. Unlike hotel rooms, a sea-view room is not a great choice on cruise.

Rooms in the inner berth are closer to the fifth and top deck, often the two best places for a view. It's also easier to sleep in the inner berth when seas are rough.

4: Don't forget

Passports, visas and other certificates. Swimsuits, of course. Take a formal suit or dress since most cruising companies hold all kinds of evening events.

Make sure you can always find your cruise ID. It has all the information you need for the ship.

5: Spending

Some ships are inclusive (the tickets cover all costs on board), others are not. Either way, there are a lot of ways to spend your money on gifts, duty-free shopping, pictures by professional ship photographers, etc.

Don't be stingy on tipping (some ships don't allow tips), but spend carefully on board. You can always go shopping on shore.

6: Excursions

It's much more fun to travel by yourself if you have experience with backpacking or are confident in your language skills and sense of direction. Most cruise companies provide transport on shore, even if you travel alone.

Punctuality is essential. It's impolite to make everyone else wait and a lot of ships don't wait.

If you miss the boat, contact the local office of the cruise ship company.

7: Good manners

As in hotels and resorts, there are unwritten rules that many first-time cruisers from Asia fail to follow. The common ones: keeping it quiet in restaurants, no smoking in public and wearing formal dress for important occasions.

8: Language

Many ships don't have Chinese-speaking waiters, translator or stewards. If there are many Chinese guests, they usually have Chinese speakers on board. Menus and service information are in Chinese.

9: Currency

The common shipboard currencies are usually US dollars and euros. Travelers checks and international credit cards are mostly acceptable. Many ships provide a consumer's debit card so you can make a deposit in advance and use the card on board.

10: Children

Almost all ships have amusement parks or playgrounds for children. They usually provide child care services.


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