When the SkySea Golden Era embarked this summer 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 entreesor dine at a new restaurant featuring cuisine from China's Jiangsu province.
The Golden Era is one of the latest cruise shipsaltering 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 $150 to $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.
From 2012 to 2014, Chinese cruise passengers increased 79% per year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association, which tracks cruises across the globe. Last year, 697,000 cruise travelers came from mainland China – almost as many passengers as all other Asia markets combined.
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 July, Carnival Corporation announced that its new Princess Cruise Lineship will be based in Shanghai instead of a US port when it is introduced in 2017. The yet-to-be-namedship will include amenities "designed specifically for the Chinese market," Carnival said, such as ocean-view hot pot dinners.
Earlier this year, Royal Caribbean moved one of its newest ships, the 4,905-passenger Quantum of the Seas to Shanghai. In March, the company announced it will send the brand-new Ovation of the Seas to Tianjin next year.
Costa Cruise, a European brand under the Carnival umbrella, recently added Costa Serena to its China fleet and will add a fourth ship to its Chinese fleet next year. Costa also recently named Chinese actress Gao Yuanyuan as its brand ambassador.
In an effort to make their ships appeal to the Chinese, companies are recalibrating much of the Western-cruise playbook. It took just six months to transform the Celebrity Century to the Golden Era, says Gary Ye, vice president of operations for SkySea Cruises. Part of the transformation involved hiring a Chinese cruise director and expanding the duty-free shopping area on board by 50%.
To be sure, the cruise companies are running into their fair share of challenges as they try to understand what Chinese passengers want. While many western cruise customers make a beeline to the bars, Chinese passengers don't drink that much, said Ye. Instead, they may prefer to line dance, a nod to the throngs of Chinese who often dance in public parks at night.
Cruise industry watchers also say VIP programmes are more important among Sino-travellers, who want prime seating for shows and one-of-a-kind, private experiences on board.
"On one hand they want keep up with theJoneses and on the other hand there’s the snob effect," Liu said. "They don't want to be the same as others."
Some cruise operators are focusing on making their Chinese ships less Sino-specific and more international. On Quantum of the Seas, which is based in Shanghai, Chinese guests can learn how to swing on trapeze barsand get cocktails made by robots at the Bionic Bar.
"People want to experience something different that they can't experience in China," Liu says. "We don't want to replicate what they can do back home."
Costa offers themed cruises throughout the year, such as "Venice at Sea," which serves Italian dishes including braised beef ragout and Venetian bean soup, and replicates Venice's carnival with masks and a parade. In an attempt to appeal to more international passengers, Costa Serena swapped out US diner-style restaurant Johnny Rockets for bar and changed the traditional Mamma Mia musical to Sonic Odyssey, an immersive show which focuses on unique musical instruments and elaborate costumes.
As cruise operators continue to tweak their offerings, one thing's for sure: the Chinese won't be shy in letting them know what they liked and disliked.
As one passenger, who cruised on the Costa Victoria over Chinese New Year in February wrote on a cruisereview website,"I didn't expect to have so [many] Chinese traditional dishes on board an Italian ship, I'm quite surprised!"