“A cruise is a new kind of experience for most Chinese people,” said Dou Wentong, cruise department manager and guide at China International Travel Services—but it likely won’t be a new experience for long.
In China’s rapid growth as a new consumer power, sea travel is yet another market China is poised to take. As China’s middle class expands and families find themselves with more disposable income at their fingertips, many urban Chinese are choosing to cruise. And although international cruising began only five years ago on the mainland, China already—and perhaps unexpectedly—has some of the finest port facilities in the world.
“We thought China would be far behind, but we came here and were amazed,” said Carlito Gayya, a bartender with 18 years’ experience on cruise lines. “It’s gorgeous, clean, and like an airport.”
International cruise ship sailings numbered 223 in China for 2010. The number of Chinese passengers reached 400,000, and is expected to exceed 1 million by 2015, according to the China Cruise and Yacht Industry Association’s secretary-general Zheng Weihang.
With that increase in mind, as well as a desire to strengthen China’s world image, many coastal Chinese cities are constructing expensive, dramatic port facilities.
“The social benefits are more important than the economic return,” said Ning Fang, office director of the Tianjin port, a $20 million facility. “We want to raise our city’s image to both travelers and investors.”
Tianjin’s facility, the nearest port to Beijing, opened last June and expects 31 cruise visits this year. Besides Tianjin and the other three big Chinese ports—Shanghai, Xiamen, and Sanya—at least seven other Chinese cities are laying plans for expensive cruise ports. And the nation’s first domestic cruise company is slated to begin this year.
Royal Caribbean International, currently the leading cruise company in China, is not concerned, however, about domestic competition.
“We see China as potentially one of the largest markets in the world. The growth rate is difficult to imagine in other markets,” said RCI’s China managing director, Leo Liu.
According to Liu, there are several demographic differences between Chinese passengers and other cruisers—the majority of whom, in the world cruise market, are Americans.
“Chinese cruisers are younger than cruisers in the U.S. They spend more on gaming, shopping, and shore excursions than their U.S. counterparts, and they drink less,” Liu said. He also noted that Chinese prefer shorter cruises, five nights or less.