SHANGHAI - Looking to convince Chinese tourists that a ship can be a holiday destination and not just a way to get there, the world's leading cruise lines are spending billions of dollars on flashy new vessels and quirky on-board services.
Carnival Corp and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd are trying to pique interest with China-centric attractions such as a menu inspired by an ex-president. They are also tapping a national penchant for education with classes ranging from foreign languages to silver service.
Drawing cruise lines to China is the prospect of $11.5 billion in sales come 2018 compared with $6.8 billion last year, according to researcher Euromonitor. The market will soon be the second-biggest and could eventually surpass the United States, industry executives said.
"Competition is getting increasingly fierce," said Jiang Yushen, a deputy general manager at China's HNA Tourism Cruise Yacht Management Co, part of HNA Group Co Ltd. The challenge is Chinese consumers are still "fuzzy" about what cruising is all about, Jiang said.
Cruises in China tend to last around five days and include stops in neighbouring South Korea and Japan. Global cruise lines have upped investment in the market in the wake of a government initiative last year to develop ports and support local lines.
The year of "marine tourism" in 2013 ended with an almost 20 per cent rise in Chinese passengers at 1.4 million - a figure likely to more than triple by 2020, according to data from the government and the China Cruise & Yacht Industry Association.
"The business shot up last year, but this year it is growing even faster," said Wang Yang, chief executive of Youlunhai.com. The travel agent sold around 5 per cent of cruise tickets in China last year, Wang said.
Carnival brand Princess Cruises based a ship in the country for the first time in May. Next year, Royal Caribbean will move one of its new near-billion dollar Quantum class ships to China almost straight from the shipyard - unusual as most vessels Western lines base in the country have already been in service.
But as luxurious as the ships may be, cruise lines still have to convince people to get on board at the main ports of Tianjin, Shanghai and Xiamen.
"The biggest challenge is getting the message across to a wider consumer base," Dominic Paul, vice president international at Royal Caribbean, told Reuters.
The cruise line carried 300,000 Chinese passengers last year and targets an annual increase of 70 per cent. It declined to provide investment or sales amounts.
Carnival also declined to specify investment or sales, but said it aimed to increase passenger capacity in the Chinese market by 140 per cent from 2013 to 2015.