Domestic ocean, river cruises set to ride wave of popularity
China Merchants-Yidun, the first Chinese-flagged luxury cruise ship, docks at a terminal at the Bund in Shanghai. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Amid COVID challenges, coastal sails will target niche consumer groups
Big ships in China are increasingly taking to the water for domestic river and ocean cruise trips, as operators are confident of riding on the growth of the resurgent industry, even though global cruise ship trade has been largely mothballed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Viking Cruises China, the China unit of Switzerland-based cruise line operator Viking Cruises, now serves as the only luxury ocean cruise line operating in China. It is operating through a joint venture with China Merchants Group, which holds a controlling stake.
China Merchants-Yidun, the first Chinese-flagged luxury cruise ship, was launched in June 2021 and provided Chinese consumers with the country's first domestic coastal cruise and in-depth exploration of destinations along China's coastline. Earlier, it operated a now-defunct route between Shenzhen, Guangdong province, and Sanya, Hainan province.
On April 3, the company plans to launch new eight-day itineraries departing from Shenzhen to Shanghai, covering multiple ports and destinations such as Zhoushan and Dongtou island, Zhejiang province, and Xiamen, Fujian province. The route will operate constantly between Shenzhen and Shanghai with one ship and departing in both cities.
"Since the pandemic, we ceased outbound cruise operations and only commenced operations of our new China coastal cruise. We spent most of the year preparing to launch this product. Since the launch, our domestic ocean cruises have enjoyed the highest guest ratings we have ever seen from our cruises worldwide," said Brendan Tansey, managing director of Viking Cruises China.
"Although resuming cruise operations in the COVID-19 era has not been without its challenges, our health protection program and pandemic prevention and management protocols have enabled us to operate incident-free so far," he said.
In the pandemic-ravaged era, dealing with "starts and stops" will become a new normal in the travel industry. The trend has driven Viking to ensure its operations and processes are set up to be nimble and able to deal with last-minute COVID-19-related changes.
Hu Keyi, head of the science and technology committee at Jiangnan Shipyard Group in Shanghai, said on the premise of good pandemic prevention and control, the country should encourage more Chinese consumers to participate in cruise tourism.
Viking Cruises China said it aims to create differentiated cruise experiences in the China market. Unlike mega-ships with casinos, entertainment facilities onboard and less exploration time onshore, the company's small and medium-sized luxury ocean ships are equipped with Scandinavian designs and carry a serene ambiance. Entertainment programs focus on Nordic, European and Chinese cultures. It also provides ample time for onshore excursions.
"Unlike most other cruises that focus on the consumer group mainly composed of families with kids, our target guests are mature, affluent, well-traveled Chinese intellectuals with discerning tastes," Tansey said.
"Since entering the China market with our European river cruise products, we have attracted a good following of guests from first-tier cities including Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, Guangdong province, as well as travelers from some second-tier cities," Tansey added.
Among Chinese travelers, retirees aged 55 and above serve as a big source of the company's business, and many used to be government officials, doctors, university professors and artists. Professionals and entrepreneurs aged in their 40s constitute another main consumer group. With the launch of domestic ocean cruises, younger guests aged in their 30s are also emerging, it said.
Viking Cruises China said its future growth in China would mainly come from several fields. They include ocean and river cruise trips in China. Viking Cruises China is working with China Merchants to build low－to no-emission ships and to develop products for Chinese travelers, exploring ports and destinations that have seen little cruise traffic in the past.
The company is also bullish on the growth prospects of European ocean and river cruises. When outbound travel restrictions are lifted, it expects a strong rebound in European river cruises dedicated to Chinese travelers and aims to add ocean cruises to its offerings.
Meanwhile, a number of domestic cruise operators in China started to sail again on the Yangtze River since the latter half of 2020, and their businesses have fared well. River cruise tours in China have been innovating their operations with higher-end equipment, better entertainment and enhanced services onboard to cater to increasingly sophisticated demand from domestic travelers.