China's latest holiday obsession - cruises

When the SkySea Golden Era embarked this month on its inaugural tour, it looked a bit different from the last time it sailed, when it was known as the Celebrity Century.

Instead of featuring a nightly Elton John tribute concert, it offered a Chinese sketch comedy and a Korean magic show. Passengers could choose from Western entrees or dine at a new restaurant featuring cuisine from China's Jiangsu province.

The Golden Era is one of the latest cruise ships altering its image to woo a growing group of passengers who see cruising as a status symbol: the Chinese.

Cruises have become popular choices for Chinese tourists in recent years, appealing to their interests of shopping, dining and experiencing a different type of travel. For some, it is also a chance to experience a Western style of living for the first time.

"They see cruising as a new lifestyle," said Liu Zinan, vice president of North Asia and China at Royal Caribbean International.

"It's not just about going on holiday. It's an aspiring experience." And with costs starting from the equivalent of US$150 (S$202) to US$200 per person per day for a standard cabin, it's not an experience everyone can afford - at that price, most passengers are likely to be upper middle-class or wealthier.

The interest has spurred cruise operators to send more ships to the region this year and scramble to line up more boats in coming years.

Earlier this month, Carnival Corporation announced that its new Princess Cruise Line ship will be based in Shanghai instead of a US port when it is introduced in 2017.

The yet-to-be-named ship will include amenities "designed specifically for the Chinese market," Carnival said, such as ocean-view hot pot dinners.

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