Bon Voyage! Chinese tourists are setting sail

Bon Voyage! Chinese tourists are setting sail

7 million Chinese tourists are estimated to be travelling abroad during the upcoming Chinese New Year, but who’s to say they will be travelling by plane? With the rapid growth of China’s FITs who seek fulfilling and authentic travel experiences, cruise trips are gradually becoming a popular way for Chinese tourists to see the big blue world. With China’s biggest holiday on the horizon, we thought this to be a great opportunity to analyse this trend, identifying the key cruise operators providing cruise trips for Chinese travellers, where Chinese tourists take cruises, and how to accommodate them on-board.

The market has potential

It’s an exciting time for China’s cruise industry – the country’s cruise liners are beginning to realise they need to go further afield to satisfy their customers. As the industry continues to develop, it is expected to become “the largest cruise market in the world.” This will depend on whether the industry can harness the huge potential of the Chinese travel market, who made an estimated 140 million overseas trips in 2018.

It is estimated that the capacity of China’s cruise lines will decline 4.4% in 2019. The two major reasons for this are the knock-on effect of 2017’s Chinese travel ban to South Korea, and the absence of routes with diverse destinations – the majority of cruises setting sail from China’s coasts stop off in South Korea and Japan, missing out exciting Southeast Asian destinations such as the Philippines and Vietnam. This is to say, despite the demand, cruises from China simply lack the variety of destinations enjoyed by cruise trips around Europe and North America.

In response, many companies are making considerable efforts to bring Chinese holidaymakers overseas to embark on their first cruise experience. Royal Caribbean Cruises was the top ranked brand in a ‘Best Experiences’ customer satisfaction survey, conducted by brand experience agency Jack Morton, where Chinese consumers were among the 6,000 surveyed. Furthermore, the brand is among the most popular in China’s cruise industry, and in 2019, they will launch their Spectrum of the Seas cruise line that aims to provide high-quality experiences “specifically tailored to Chinese guests.” The cruise line, which will sail from Barcelona to Shanghai across a 51-night voyage, will entertain over 4,200 guests with virtual reality experiences, luxury dining offering both Chinese and Western cuisines, and the largest indoor sports and entertainment complex ever to set sail. This level of commitment to the China market by such a major brand is testament to the huge potential of the China cruise market.

Costa Group Asia, a major cruise operator in Europe and Asia, will launch its first ship designed specifically for the Chinese market in 2019. The Costa Venezia aims to provide an immersive Italian experience for Chinese travellers and its 5,100 passengers with boutique shops selling goods from luxury Italian brands, a theatre evocative of Venice’s iconic Teatro La Fenice and an atrium inspired by St. Mark’s Square. The cruise will set sail on a 53-day voyage in March 2019 covering the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and East Asia.

Furthermore, Costa Cruises are evidently committed to improving their ‘China Welcome’. In 2018, the company partnered with football club Juventus to provide unique “football at sea” experiences especially for Chinese guests boarding its Costa Serena cruise liner. The experiences include the Juventus Museum decorated with trophies and club memorabilia, and a mini football academy for children to hone their skills. In addition, in 2017, Costa Serena was the first Costa Cruise to allow Chinese guests to pay using Alipay mobile payments.

Likewise, Princess Cruises, owned by the same corporation as the Costa Cruises Group, announced in December 2018 that it will introduce Alipay and WeChat Pay mobile payment systems on its North American cruises, being the first cruise liner to do this. Thus, if cruise companies want to welcome more Chinese travellers on-board, they need to show that they are making an effort to accommodate them. This is evidently paving way for competition between the major cruise companies who are acknowledging the potential of the China market and are targeting Chinese tourists with unique experiences offered only by their cruises.

Indeed, exciting, one-of-a-kind experiences like these are exactly what travel and culture hungry Chinese tourists are looking for, and could go a long way to bringing Chinese tourists away from airport terminals and back to the docks. Approximately 2.5 million Chinese outbound global travellers took cruise trips in 2017, but this is expected to rise to 8-10 million by 2025.

Venturing to the End of the Earth

Over the past few months, you may have seen a plethora of articles about a growing number of Chinese travellers embarking on cruises to Antarctica. Today, China is Antarctica’s second-largest tourism market, having welcomed 8,273 Chinese visitors in the 2017-18 season, and approximately 90% of Chinese tourists visiting Antarctica choose to travel there via cruise (only 1%  directly fly to the South Pole). Perhaps the credit lies with Ctrip who provide nearly 200 Antarctic products on their platform and over 20 ships to choose from.

However, this adventure isn’t cheap, and appeals largely to group travellers who can afford to take extended time out of work. Figures from 2018 indicate Chinese tourists spent an average of 23 days on Antarctic tours, spending between $7,000 and $16,000 USD. Nevertheless, it seems money is no object for Chinese tourists looking for unusual yet fulfilling experiences that deliver ‘face’ status – on Ctrip, most Antarctic cruises for January and February have sold out, and the agency has increased its Antarctic products by 30% this year to meet the demand. This reinforces that unique travel experiences like these are becoming increasingly more important to Chinese travellers.

River cruises are making huge waves in accommodating Chinese guests

Idyllically cruising down one of the world’s most famous rivers and taking in its beautiful scenery is a popular travel experience, and certain river cruise companies are recognising the huge potential of attracting Chinese tourists to these experiences. In 2016, Viking Cruises announced its first step in the China market by dedicating two of its Europe river ships for Chinese travellers. The ships, which both set sail in 2017 along the Rhine and Danube rivers respectively, were fully staffed with Mandarin-speakers who made up all their hotel crew, included Mandarin signage, and a cuisine designed by a ‘Master Chef China’ judge. Furthermore, each ship assigned eight Mandarin guides to groups for their ground programs.

Viking were this committed to their ‘China Welcome’ to ensure their Chinese guests’ concerns about the language barrier, transportation and food and services were eliminated, and it seems to have paid off. Both cruises are still running, with Viking dedicating 100 tours for them in 2018, and the company now expects its cruises targeting Chinese travellers to account for half of their European river cruises in the future. Chinese guests on Viking’s Mandarin-language cruises can now also join a dedicated WeChat group to receive updates and share photos taken during the trip with each other.

This shows that, if their travel needs are accommodated for, there is an innate desire among Chinese travellers to experience a variety of destinations in the luxury and comfort of cruise tours, and there is definitely huge potential for them to become one of the authentic travel experiences they crave.

Chinese tourist spending – opportunity for land and sea

Chinese tourists have a strong spending power for duty-free shops; 40% of Chinese travellers purchase duty-free goods with an average receipt of $232, higher than the $146 global average. China’s cruise industry seems to have acknowledged this, and is redeveloping its cruise terminals to match the quality of services the best airport terminals provide. Shanghai’s Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal is undergoing redevelopment to transform into a “potential tourist attraction” itself, replacing its once solitary duty-free store with a duty-free shopping complex stocking high-end goods. Furthermore, the city plans to introduce linkages between cruises, airlines, trains and buses, to not only improve convenience of travel but to encourage Chinese tourists to visit the cruise terminal for their shopping needs alone. Perhaps overseas destinations should acknowledge this redevelopment and capitalise on Chinese tourists’ spending power by looking to provide more, and better, shopping facilities at their cruise ship ports (and if they accept Chinese mobile payments, even better!).

Reeling it in

As cruise companies are becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities arising from China’s outbound tourism market, competition has ensued to ensure their ‘extra steps’ to accommodate Chinese travellers are being recognised inside-and-outside the industry. Perhaps this is why Viking Cruises’ Chinese traveller focused river cruises are the most publicised and prominent in their field – it will be interesting to monitor whether competing river cruise operators will follow suit and introduce more Mandarin-language services. Cruise companies can use all the PR they can get when it comes to the China market.

One way to promote your Chinese tourist friendly cruise trip would be through hosting an influential Chinese Key Opinion Leader, who could not only blog about the wide variety of destinations visited throughout the journey, but most importantly, describe in detail the facilities and services on the cruise that accommodate Chinese guests and where these can be improved. If an influential KOL tells their audience “this particular cruise line makes the extra effort with its Chinese guests” in a blog that reaches the home pages of China’s key travel platforms, this would no doubt put them on the radar for adventurous Chinese travellers.

If you are interested in finding out more about marketing your cruises to the Chinese, including the benefits of hosting a Chinese KOL, please feel free to contact us for a chat.

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Photo by ben o’bro on Unsplash


Brighton Office

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