Chinese explore new waters -- cruising

Part of the



Chinese tourists are on the move, and they have a new passion – cruising.  

The number of Chinese taking to the high seas has grown 10 fold every year since 2011, and is expected to top 4.5 million cruisers by 2020.  North American’s still dominate cruise holidays today with almost 14 million setting sail each year.  Europeans follow with just over 6 million travelers, and the rest of the world accounts for 4 million.

But these dynamics are changing as the Chinese explore new waters.

Visits to the North and South Pole, as well as the Galapagos, now are on the bucket list of the adventuresome Chinese according to recent polls.  While it is possible to visit these locations by overland treks and via air, the best way to experience them is by cruise line. Research by the Financial Times shows that more than 700 million Chinese are expected to travel overseas in the next five years, yet less than 1.5 million have taken a cruise.

Cruise lines, such as Costa and Royal Caribbean who service more than half the Chinese market, have recognized the potential of this lucrative market. They are embracing the changing tastes of the Chinese traveler and are increasing their outreach to Mandarin speaking tourists.

But it has not been all smooth sailing.  

An overly exuberant expectation of growth that led to overcapacity, combined with strict regulations on how tickets are sold, have hurt operators’ bottom lines.  Unstable relations between China with two of the top destinations for cruises ships sailing in the region – Taiwan and South Korea – have further reduced travelers.

While the market dipped in 2018, all trends point to more Chinese choosing to cruise in the near future.

China’s rapidly growing class of millionaires and billionaires seek opportunities to have a unique experience on their travels – and they are willing to pay for it.  A land trek to the North or South Pole can cost as much as $100,000 and comes with limitations.  Cruises offer more luxury, a leisurely pace, and opportunities to reach untouched landscapes only seen from the water.

One interesting quirk of the Chinese market that escapes most cruise lines is that the Chinese prefer to leave from more exotic locations, as opposed to other markets that prefer the convenience of leaving from local ports.  The smart cruise lines will focus on destination cruises that offer a unique experience. They will use smaller ships with customized itineraries, and embrace adventure cruises.

The cruise line that thinks outside the cabin will position itself to catch the next wave of Chinese travelers and ride it to the top. It is only a matter of time before the Chinese command the seas –  or at least, the cruise lines.


Deborah Lehr


August 7, 2018

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