Cruising Asia

A once-in- a-lifetime experience goes mainstream


By: By Marilyn Green

Forming the ACA

In October, at Seatrade’s All-Asia cruise convention, Costa Cruises, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Silversea Cruises and Star Cruises signed a memorandum of understanding as the first move in forming the Asia Cruise Association (ACA). The goal of the organization is to promote the development, professional growth and commercial success of the cruise industry in the region.

Based in Singapore, the ACA will act as a sort of CLIA in Asia, giving the cruise industry a collective presence and voice toward the common goal of promoting cruising in the region. The cruise industry will be able to collect and share cruise tourism statistics and information on regulatory issues impacting cruising.

A primary focus is enhancing knowledge for the distribution system with training sessions, seminars and accreditation programs developed for agents. The ACA will also actively work with trade media to raise awareness, according to Steve Odell, Silversea Cruises senior vice president for Asia/Pacific.

Another goal will be working with Asian governments to address issues such as cabotage, customs and immigration policies and facilitating passenger movement in the region.

The ACA also will offer expertise in port development and cruise infrastructure.

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Cruises in Asia represent a great opportunity for agents, with consumers buying ever longer itineraries and booking pre- and post-cruise stays for these once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The region is developing rapidly beyond the September-to-April seasonal market, with a number of cruise lines, from contemporary to luxury, announcing extended and year-round deployment. And according to data from the Ocean Shipping Consultants, the Northeast Asia cruise market is expected to see continued growth. In 2005, the region hosted an estimated 440,000 cruise passengers, and that number is projected to increase to 720,000 in 2010.

Oceania Nautica in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam // (c) Oceania Cruises
Oceania Nautica in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The cruise lines most active in Asia are balancing the differing needs of Asians and North Americans with diverse itineraries. Three- to seven-day cruises without sea days appeal most to Asians, while for North Americans the longer the itinerary, the quicker the sale.

"The product was on fire last year and this year, and people are definitely choosing longer cruises," said Brad Anderson, co-president of America’s Vacation Center (AVC), based in California and Florida. "When Oceania announced its 2009-2010 program in late August, we immediately saw heavy booking days. On the first day, the 40-day crossing into Asia from Athens brought two bookings at $44,000 apiece for Penthouse staterooms, and I would still call that a bargain. Where else would you get huge suites and facilities, that kind of service, food and enrichment for $500 a day?"

Anderson said AVC is selling mostly 12- to 20-day stays in Asia.

"People can amortize the cost of airfare, and they want a day or more at the destination for every hour on the plane," he said.

Lines Expand Offerings
The luxury and premium cruise lines have broadened the traditional segments of a world cruise to add a series of longer cruises in Asia, while diversifying their ports of call. Cunard Line offers Asia as portions of 2009 world cruises on both the new Queen Victoria and the Queen Mary 2, with calls everywhere from Japan and Hong Kong to Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and India.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises is offering a series of 14- to 16-night cruises on Seven Seas Mariner’s Ring of Fire world cruise next year, from Seward, Alaska, to Osaka, Japan; Osaka to Hong Kong; and Hong Kong to Singapore; along with combinations of Africa and India on Voyager’s world cruise.

An increasing number of Asian luxury cruises are being sold on their own. Silversea Cruises has doubled its sailings on Silver Whisper from five in 2008 to 10 in 2009, ranging from nine to 15 days in length and departing from ports that include Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Yokohama, Japan. Meanwhile, Seabourn Cruise Line has announced that Seabourn Pride will be deployed year-round in Asia in 2010, offering a variety of itineraries, including Hong Kong to Tianjin, China, and Tianjin to Kobe, Japan.

Crystal Cruises is making a major investment this year with two ships in Asia, plus spending time in this region as part of its world cruise.

"We see Asia as a great destination for worldwide guests and a growing source market," said Bill Smith, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Crystal is going to great lengths to court the Asian and Asian-American market with Japanese hostesses onboard, Asian breakfasts, kimonos as an alternative to the Frette robes, and, of course, the line’s Nobu restaurants. They also offer overnight stays in many destinations, from Bangkok to Osaka, Kobe and Hiroshima, Japan. The line also visits India and Vietnam.

"Our April 5 Beijing to Hong Kong cruise includes three days in Beijing before boarding the ship," Smith stated. "We’re the only line that offers this extensive package as part of the cruise. And there are a number of opportunities to enjoy back-to-back cruises; you could sail Beijing to Japan to Shanghai and end in Hong Kong, then go to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Dubai."

He said Crystal is seeing a real surge in family travel in the region, with Asian-American families joining their Asian relatives. Agents can sell pre- and post- packaged family groups, and Crystal offers a 1 for 10 tour conductor policy, shore-excursion credits, family photo credits and two-category upgrades. People can book a Category C cabin on the Symphony, pay for it and then upgrade to a veranda cabin. In the Penthouses, where they can’t upgrade, the line gives them $2,000 per person off the price. Crystal offers agent incentives as well: Agents selling three staterooms on Crystal Symphony’s 2009 China/Japan and Southeast Asia cruises receive a free cruise in a veranda stateroom.

The premium lines are also increasing their presence in Asia. Jan Swartz, senior vice president of customer service and sales at Princess Cruises, said that, for the 2009-2010 season, the company will double its capacity by deploying two ships there.

"We’ve seen strong interest in the booking patterns for some time," she added.

Like other exotic destinations, Asia sells much farther out, with experienced cruisers buying as soon as Princess opens the books on itineraries averaging two weeks.

Holland America Line (HAL) is offering 21 South Pacific and Asia sailings on the Volendam from 12 to 19 days. A new 14-day Southeast Asia itinerary sails from Singapore to Hong Kong on April 4 (a reverse cruise sails from Hong Kong on Nov. 9 for 12 days) and includes an overnight in Bangkok and a first-time stop in Puerto Princesa, Philippines. HAL has also added its first roundtrip Hong Kong sailing next year in October — a 14-day China and Vietnam itinerary.

Oceania has proved a very popular product in Asia, and spokesperson Tim Rubacky said the region is a tremendous opportunity for agents.

"We’ve found that the longer the cruise, the quicker it sells, so we are lengthening itineraries," he said. "Most of our passengers book pre- or post-cruise stays, or both, and our shore-excursion packages are commissionable. That also takes the pressure off air travel, since not all the passengers want to arrive at the same time or leave at the same time, so air can be worked out more advantageously. We have a very large number of overnights in ports — six to eight on our 15-night cruises — and people feel more comfortable going out to restaurants and taking part in nightlife on shore excursions rather than independently."

While Oceania has 15- and 16-night cruises that sell very well, the 18-, 20- and 24-day itineraries sell even better, and 35- to 40-day cruises sell very well indeed, Rubacky said. Oceania’s success with its lengthened cruises this year has given them the impetus to make sailings even longer next year for the 2009-2010 season.

"Our crossing to Asia was 24 nights; now, it’s 40, and people are snapping it up," Rubacky commented. "We offer five days in India, a huge plus; our passengers can spend time in Agra and see the Taj Mahal."

He said agents should realize that Asia always commands premium prices; a 15-day cruise at $15,000 per couple also typically involves pre- and post-cruise hotel stays and shore-excursion packages, which are commissionable.

Overnights seem to be a key in customer choice in Asia, and Azamara Cruises will offer overnights in nearly half the ports the line will visit during its series of 14- to 18-night cruises in 2009-2010. In addition, two 24-night repositioning cruises to the region each feature two to six overnight stays.

Azamara is also offering a special 18-night Christmas and New Year’s cruise with overnight stays in six different ports, including a two-night stay in Bangkok. Other overnight ports include Danang, Vietnam; Dubai; Hong Kong; Shanghai; Singapore; and Tianjin. The Azamara Quest will visit three ports that are new to the line: Nagasaki, Japan; Phuket, Thailand; and Taipei, Taiwan.

Costa Brings Affordable Cruising
A big change occurred in the Asia cruising market in 2006, when Costa Cruise Lines brought the 800-passenger Costa Allegra to Shanghai year-round and offered affordable cruising for the mass market. The Costa product has developed two aspects: shorter cruises for the Chinese and longer ones for international cruisers. The line will bring a second ship, Costa Classica, to Asia and China in March 2009 to offer 31 cruises ranging from four to 14 nights from Singapore, Shanghai, Tianjin and Hong Kong; this represents an 80 percent increase in Costa’s regional cruising.

Yangtze River cruises, such as this one on Viking, have become extremely popular. // (c) Viking Cruise Line
Yangtze River cruises, such as this one on Viking, have become extremely popular.

A key issue in bringing contemporary cruisers to such an exotic destination is airfare. Gianni Onorato, Costa Crociere president, said Costa has made extended arrangements to safeguard its product in Asia.

"We are the first company to make a long-term deal with an airline in our joint partnership with Air France," he stated.

Onorato said Air France has been supportive of Costa’s long-term plans in Asia, and Costa gives the airline solid commitments in terms of traffic.

"In some cases, we have been doubtful about placing a ship in a destination because of airlift, and this agreement allows us to plan ahead with them and to have competitive pricing," he said. "The airline knows we won’t sail with an empty cabin, so that gives them an assurance of volume. We can’t eliminate airfare increases, but we can reduce them."

He said agents will find it very advantageous to book air through Costa for Asian itineraries.

Another line sourcing heavily among international cruisers, Royal Caribbean International, recently announced plans for year-round Asian deployment of Legend of the Seas starting in November 2009, at the end of the line’s second year of seasonal cruising. Legend will sail approximately 40 cruises of three to eight nights during 2010 from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tianjin then offer a series of short cruises of Southeast Asia from Singapore.

Expedition and River Cruising
As a trip of a lifetime, Asia is a natural for expedition cruising, and in 2009 Cruise West will offer a 12-day cruise from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City on its return to Vietnam aboard the 120-passenger Spirit of Oceanus. Destinations will include Hoi An and Hue, with an optional five-day Angkor Wat/Cambodia add-on. The company also has three cruises scheduled in 2009 that end in Singapore.

Orion Expedition Cruises makes its inaugural visits to Asia in 2009, exploring the Spice Island archipelagos of Indonesia as well as the Gulf of Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam and including islands of Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Bali.

"Depending on the chosen voyage, these 9-, 10- and 11-night itineraries in September and October include both popular and rarely visited Asian destinations," said Karen Wiseman, general manager, global marketing and sales strategy.

Closely related in their ability to tap inland cultural history are river cruises in Asia. Michele Saegesser, vice president of sales North America and South Pacific for Viking River Cruises, said, "China is so amazingly Viking. Four years ago when Tor Hagen [company founder, chairman and CEO] said we would build a ship there we were doubtful, but the mainland Chinese are so kind — they can’t do enough for you. I found a sign on a mirror onboard written by a staff member that said, ‘Perfection begins from the heart,’ and that sums up their attitude."

Viking’s Yangtze River business grew from 4,500 international passengers the first year to more than 15,000 in 2007.

"Since the Olympics, sales for China have been insane," Saegesser said.

The company is now considering sailing in other Asian destinations as well.

For 2009, Uniworld will offer a collection of nine Asia voyages ranging from 10 to 20 days, combining Xian, Beijing, Suzhou, Guilin’s mountains, Tibet’s Potola Palace and the Yangtze River’s Three Gorges. New for 2009 is Treasures of China and the Yangtze, a 16-day adventure that begins in Shanghai and ends in Beijing.

New York-based Victoria Cruises has been offering Yangtze cruises since 1994; the company works 90 percent with other cruise lines and tour operators, including Avalon Waterways. The line will debut Victoria Jenna next year, which lays claim to the title of the biggest river vessel in the world; like the company’s newest ship, Victoria Anna, she will also have elevators, a key advantage for the mature market.

For those interested in China’s transformation from ancient to modern, Victoria recommends the seven-day Grand Yangtze Discovery. This itinerary departs the port city of Chongqing every Monday and sails to the Three Gorges, the massive Three Gorges Dam, the "Ghost City" of Fengdu, Huangshan, also known as "Yellow Mountain" (one of China’s most outstanding scenic attractions), the city of Wuhan and Nanjing (capital of the Jiangsu province, where cruisers will see the Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum and a Qing Dynasty-style Bazaar surrounding a Confucian Temple), before disembarking in Shanghai.

With a strong determination to become a major cruise center, Asian cruise facilities are being built and enhanced in ports from Indonesia to Malaysia and China to Japan, and executives are working to address cabotage restrictions that limit itineraries.

"The future of Asia’s growth as a destination is in the countries’ own hands," Anderson said. "If they provide the kind of experiences that bring people back raving about their visits, word of mouth is the most effective incentive to travel out there."