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East Asia poised for a rebirth

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Ted Blamey moderated the panel discussion on prospects for East Asia cruising
East Asia is the last significant region globally for cruising to recover but judging from discussions at Seatrade Cruise Asia Pacific 2023 it is poised to reassert its past prominence.

In setting the scene in Hong Kong, moderator Ted Blamey, principal, CHART Management Consultants, pointed to the fact most international cruise lines withdrew or halted operations in Asian waters during COVID and whilst operations have resumed, the scene in 2022 significantly changed from 2019.

Costa, Princess, Royal Caribbean International and Star Cruises accounted for almost half of pre-pandemic sailings but that shrunk to under 20% last year with RCI alone operating. Meanwhile other premium, contemporary and upscale brands took a much higher share of Asia activity.

Yokohama boost

Pre-pandemic, East Asia represented 60% of all calls in the region but in 2022 that number reduced to 29% as China and Korea came to a standstill. Japan was the only country with significant cruise activity in 2022 resulting in Yokohama, with 66 turnarounds, registering as the busiest port in East Asia, whilst 72 Japanese ports had transit calls.

However, with the reopening of China and Korea and more open assess to Japan, international cruise lines are returning to East Asia next year with multiple turnarounds scheduled in Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Xiamen and Tianjin and seasonal turnarounds in such ports as Keelung, Busan, Yokohama and Kobe.

Chinese domestic brands

Asked to sum up China, now and into the future, Dr Zinan Liu, SVP and chairman Royal Caribbean Cruises Asia said it will take time for consumer confidence to return and the economy is taking a long time to bounce back. RCI with Spectrum of the Seas and MSC Cruises will start sailing from Chinese ports in 2024. Whereas in 2019 over 90% of Chinese cruisers sailed on international ships, next year, international brands will only account for 30% of Chinese passengers with domestic brands, including Adora Cruises, the China Merchants Group/Viking joint venture and Blue Dream carrying 70%.

Helen Huang, president Greater China at MSC Cruises, spoke of the pre-pandemic China market being driven in the main by short-term profitability objectives by some of the majors which caused ‘fast growth but a somewhat unbalanced supply-demand scenario.’ With MSC Bellissima starting Shanghai cruises from next March, and Shenzen cruises from June plus seasonally sailings from Taiwan, ‘we are making significant progress’.

She added, ‘We still believe in China but the real task is how to develop in a more balanced way  and make sure consumers understand the product better.

China building back

‘If all international brands start to add tonnage again we believe the Chian source market will hit the 2m mark again sometime between 2025-26.’

Liu spoke of the Chinese central government's prediction to reach 14m passengers by 2035. That would entail 18-20% annual compound growth depending on the starting point which is high, however he predicted, ‘It is not impossible to have annual double digit growth again in China.’

Kenneth Wong, GM MICE & cruise at Hong Kong Tourism Board spoke about the potential of the Greater Bay Area, accounting for over 86m people, as a source market generator. ‘In Hong Kong, we see potential to work with some good neighbours to attract homeporting ships which could also provide passengers [for interporting] operations and I believe there is more opportunity for co-operation than competition in the future.’