Asia on the Horizon

Lines show renewed interest in the Orient and Down Under

By: M.T. Schwartzman

It’s more like a movement than a full-fledged trend perhaps best described as a rising tide. We’re talking about the cruise industry’s increasing interest in far Pacific waters, from northern Asia to Australia. Indeed, for the first time since being derailed by the one-two punch of the SARS epidemic and the invasion of Iraq, cruise lines big and small are angling for Asia. Among the brands planning to add or expand tonnage in the region for 2005-2006 are Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Oceania Cruises and Cruise West.

Holland America will span the Pacific Rim with cruises and crossings from Alaska to Australia. The 1,258-passenger Statendam will call in such far-flung places as Bora Bora, New Zealand, Japan, China, Korea and Russia. Though the line has dabbled with Asia/Pacific cruises in the past, mostly on World Cruises and Grand Pacific Voyages, this will be its most extensive Asia/Pacific deployment to date. Itineraries on the Statendam range from two weeks to 35 days, including two epic trans-Pacific crossings.

Even more impressive is a scheduled 62-day Pacific circumnavigation from Seattle to San Diego aboard the 1,380-passenger Amsterdam. The cruise departs Oct. 6, and makes 20 port calls en route, including three overnights in Yokohama, Xingang and Hong Kong.

Oceania Cruises also plans to make a big splash in Asia later this year. Beginning on Nov. 28, the 684-passenger Nautica makes its debut in the Far East and China. Designed to be port intensive, these 15- to 35-day cruises feature overnight stays in Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Shanghai, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Kyoto, Bombay, Luxor and Dubai, providing two full days to explore each city. The line also offers pre- and post-cruise packages in Angkor Wat, Beijing and Xian.

“We see these as a big selling point. So far, the agent response has been phenomenal,” said public relations and marketing manager Tim Rubacky.

No one has bigger ships in Asia than Princess, which is planning an encore performance of sorts, following the Sapphire Princess’ inaugural cruises Down Under. The upcoming deployment features a longer, three-month Australia season aboard the 2,674-passenger Diamond Princess, cruise-tour options in China and Australia, a new port call at Petropavlovsk in far eastern Russia, plus a variety of Asia or South Pacific sailings aboard the 670-passenger Pacific Princess or Tahitian Princess.

Meanwhile, Celebrity Cruises recently reversed course on announced plans to send the 1,950-passenger Summit to Asia in 2006.

“The demand for Celebrity’s current itineraries is strong, and we want to capitalize on that in 2006-07, before moving into new markets such as Asia,” said Celebrity president Dan Hanrahan.

“This in no way eliminates Asia from Celebrity’s potential deployment lineup in the future,” added Hanrahan.

On the smaller end of the scale, Cruise West will launch its first season in Japan and the South Pacific in 2006.

As with the company’s Alaska cruises, the itineraries are designed to avoid crowded areas frequented by big ships. Zodiac landing craft will bring passengers ashore, avoiding long bus rides from remote docks. Local guides will lead excursions, and regional entertainers will perform onboard.

Cruise West’s voyages to Japan are scheduled for March to coincide with Hanami, the season of the cherry blossoms. Autumn cruises are scheduled in October, during Momiji, the time of the falling maple leaves. The 13- or 16-night itineraries feature more than a dozen ports of call between Kobe and Niigata, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A bullet-train ride between the ship and Tokyo is included on all sailings.

Before reaching the Land of the Rising Sun, Cruise West’s 114-passenger Spirit of Oceanus will island-hop across the Pacific on a westward journey that begins in Hawaii. Rounding out the program is a recently added “Ring of Fire” cruise that follows a northern Pacific route.

“We keep reinventing ourselves. We’re always striving to improve and find new programs,” said Cruise West chairman and CEO Dick West.

Those new programs may include cruises to Vietnam for 2007 or 2008, he added.