As Chinese cruise tourist numbers get set to reach 2.6 million this year, market analysts share their perspectives on the growing domestic cruise tourism market with the Global Times. However, concerns over industry sustainability and warnings about cruise port excess from experts have begun to loom.
On July 21, 2016, five luxury cruise ships carrying 17,000 Chinese tourists arrived at several of Japan's ports all in one day.
Local governments and travel companies from Fukuoka, Okinawa and Nagasaki - Japan's ports of call - were so surprised by the purchasing power of Chinese tourists that traditional Japanese drum performances were specially arranged to welcome the influx of Chinese tourists at Fukuoka port, where two of the five cruise ships brought passengers in the thousands.
This scene is just one footnote of China's newly discovered cruise obsession. Almost nonexistent just a decade ago, the cruise business is now thriving.
The cruise tourism industry, with its outreaching industrial chain, significant effect on infrastructure and ability to boost employment, is now perceived by the Chinese government as the engine of a consumption-driven economy.
In 2016, China became the world's 8th largest cruise tourist-generating country, with the outbound number of cruise tourists exceeding 2 million, according to data published by the China Cruise & Yacht Industry Association. And that figure is expected to reach 2.6 million this year.
As of the end of 2016, 18 cruise ships capable of accommodating 42,000 guests in total designated Chinese ports as their homes.
Ctrip, a leading Chinese online travel agency (OTA) listed on the NASDAQ, is among nearly a dozen China-based platforms that offer booking services for cruise trips. The company also has a 35 percent stake in domestic cruise operator SkySea Holding International in cooperation with Royal Caribbean International, a deal inked in 2014.
The Chinese cruise market has been rapidly developing over the last 11 years, and in three stages, according to a statement Ctrip sent to the Global Times on Tuesday.
"From 2006 to 2010, the market featured small-sized cruise ships carrying high-end customers. In 2010, the arrival of Royal Caribbean International's "Legend of the Seas", a ship with a tonnage of 70,000, ushered in the era of middle-sized cruised ships," the statement said.
"Then, in 2015, the market witnessed new highs with multiple events - cruise tourism became a full-year activity, the industry served 2 million tourists for the first time and ships with tonnages of 10,000 and more foreign cruise operators such as Princess Cruises and MSC entered the Chinese market. In addition to those, the first domestic luxury cruise ship operator debuted its global voyage."
According to data provided by Ctrip, the number of tourists on its platform jumped by 40 percent year-on-year during July and August of this year. Strong growth was particularly driven by passengers who were children under age 12 and adults under age 39.
This year has seen 50 percent annual growth in the number of customers from China's inland provinces, indicating that the market in non-coastal areas is gradually being tapped, the OTA said.
A statement posted on the website of the China National Tourism Administration in July hailed the upcoming decade as a "golden decade" for the market, in which the Asian cruise market is set to surpass that of the US.
Insiders expect the number of Chinese cruise tourists to exceed 5 million by 2020 and reach 10 million by 2030, according to a report published by the Economic Information Daily (EID) on August 17.
However, amid the growing market trend, insiders claim that high fees are triggering competitiveness and development imbalances between home ports, which could hinder the sustainability of the new and emerging industry.