Inland ocean and river cruises set to ride the wave of popularity

China Merchants-Yidun, Viking Cruises’ first Chinese-flagged luxury cruise ship, docks at a Bund terminal in Shanghai. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Amid COVID challenges, coastal sails will target niche consumer groups

Large ships in China are increasingly taking to the waters for domestic river and ocean cruises as operators are confident to cash in on the growth of the resurgent industry, even as the global cruise ship trade has been largely put on hold. cocooned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Viking Cruises China, the Chinese unit of Swiss-based cruise operator Viking Cruises, is now the only luxury ocean-going cruise line operating in China. It operates through a joint venture with China Merchants Group, which holds a majority stake.

China Merchants-Yidun, Viking Cruises’ first Chinese-flagged luxury cruise ship, launched in June 2021 and offered Chinese consumers the country’s first inland coastal cruise and in-depth exploration of destinations along China’s coastline. Previously, it operated a now defunct route between Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, and Sanya, Hainan Province.

On April 3, the company plans to launch new eight-day routes from Shenzhen to Shanghai, covering multiple ports and destinations such as Zhoushan and Dongtou Island in Zhejiang Province and Xiamen in Fujian. The route will operate continuously between Shenzhen and Shanghai with a single ship and departing from both cities.

“Since the pandemic, we have ceased overseas cruise operations and only started operations of our new China Coastal Cruise. We have spent most of the year preparing for the launch of this product. Since launch, our domestic ocean cruises have enjoyed the highest ratings we have ever seen from our cruises worldwide,” said Brendan Tansey, general manager of Viking Cruises China.

“While resuming cruise operations in the era of COVID-19 has not been without challenges, our health protection program and pandemic prevention and management protocols have allowed us to operate without incident. so far,” he said.

In the pandemic-ravaged era, managing “starts and stops” will become a new normal in the travel industry. The trend has pushed Viking to ensure its operations and processes are set up to be agile and able to deal with last-minute changes related to COVID-19.

Hu Keyi, head of the science and technology committee of Jiangnan Shipyard Group in Shanghai, said that based on good pandemic prevention and control, the country should encourage more Chinese consumers to participate in cruise tourism.

Viking Cruises China said it aims to create differentiated cruise experiences in the Chinese market. Unlike mega-ships with casinos, onboard entertainment facilities and less exploration time ashore, the company’s small-to-midsize luxury ocean-going vessels feature Scandinavian designs and exude a serene vibe. Entertainment programs focus on Nordic, European and Chinese cultures. It also offers ample time for shore excursions.

“Unlike most other cruises which focus on the consumer group consisting primarily of families with children, our target customers are mature, well-off, well-traveled Chinese intellectuals with discerning tastes,” Tansey said.

“Since entering the Chinese market with our European river cruise products, we have attracted a good number of guests from first-tier cities, including Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, as well as travelers from some cities in second tier,” Mr. Tansey added. .

Among Chinese travellers, retirees aged 55 and over are an important source of business for the company, and many of them were government officials, doctors, university professors and artists. Professionals and entrepreneurs in their 40s are another large group of consumers. With the launch of domestic ocean cruises, young customers in their thirties are also emerging, he said.

Viking Cruises China said its future growth in China will mainly come from several areas. They include ocean and river cruises in China. Viking Cruises China is working with China Merchants to build low- or zero-emission ships and develop products for Chinese travelers, exploring ports and destinations that have seen little cruise traffic in the past.

The company is also optimistic about the growth prospects for European ocean and river cruises. When restrictions on overseas travel are lifted, it expects a strong rebound in European river cruises dedicated to Chinese travelers and aims to add ocean cruises to its offering.

Meanwhile, a number of domestic cruise lines in China have resumed sailing on the Yangtze River since the second half of 2020, and their business has performed well. China’s river cruises have innovated in their operations with high-end amenities, better entertainment and improved onboard services to meet the increasingly sophisticated demand of domestic travellers.

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