The strategic partnership sees China’s largest online consolidator of accommodation and transportation tickets in terms of volume going from a cruise ship charterer to a part-owner next year.
‘When the international cruise lines first started looking at China for bookings it was easier to get one of the large travel agencies to charter the whole ship as it took away the risk,’ Tan said. They, in turn, consolidated the inventory and put it back to the brick-and-mortar travel agencies to sell.
Ctrip.com, for example, has secured 16 charters between March and November 2014, a range of short, round-trip cruises from Shanghai to Korea and Japan on four ships: Mariner of the Seas (seven), Costa Atlantica (five), Voyager of the Seas (three) and an August sailing on Sapphire Princess.
Tan called the process ‘a good short-term fix’ but stressed it is not a long-term growth strategy as it means the lines are not taking control of their own bookings and are not brand-building or controlling pricing.
‘It was a good way to start attracting Chinese consumers to cruise but not a long-term strategy for growing the overall business,’ Tan told Seatrade Insider. That's true especially as cruising from China is now becoming a year-round market, he added.
Costa Atlantica and Quantum of the Seas will operate from China in winter 2015/16. The ships used to sail away from North Asia between November and February and come back in March. But with so many vast coastal cities in mainland China, the demand is sustainable year-round, Tan said.
Increasingly, cruise product will be sold digitally. From Alibaba to JD.com, China’s online e-commerce giants are eyeing cruise sales. Youlunhai.com and rival travel agents are also playing their part in growing the market.
Ctrip, which claims to sell around 10% of all cruise tickets, offers discounts through social media and collaboration with other websites.
China has almost double the Internet users of the US.
As earlier reported, Royal Caribbean and Ctrip will each own 35% of SkySea Cruises, with the balance held by SkySea management and a private equity fund. The line will begin operations in mid-2015 using the former Celebrity Century, which leaves the Celebrity fleet in mid-April.