Thatcher Brown was 18 years old when he signed up to work on a cruise ship in New York. His maiden voyage took him via Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Madagascar and other exotic ports before sailing into Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour almost three months later.
That was in 1986 and Hong Kong and mainland China were backwaters for the cruise-ship industry. The city didn’t even have a dedicated terminal that cruise liners could use as a home base, he recalls.
Now, China is poised to become the world’s largest cruise market.
“China is rapidly catching up. The speed of the industry is just incredible,” said Brown, who 30 years after he first stepped ashore in the former British colony is back in the city as the head of a new premium cruise line, Dream Cruises, that is targeting mainland Chinese travelers.
With almost 1 million Chinese passengers last year, and an annual growth rate of 66 percent since 2012, the country is the world’s fastest-growing major source market for cruise passengers, according to the Cruise Lines International Association’s 2016 Asia Cruise Trends study.
The cruising boom is seen all across the region, and the report said that the Asian source markets are becoming the new growth engine of the global cruise industry.
As passengers are getting on board, so are the cruise operators. Carnival Corp, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises are among those to have recently outlined strategic growth plans for China.
“China is profitable,” Arnold Donald, head of Carnival Corp told analysts. Carnival runs Princess Cruises, one of the world’s largest operators.
Dream Cruises is a new premium line owned by a Hong Kong unit of Malaysia’s Genting, which also runs Crystal Cruises and Star Cruises.
The new line’s first ship, Genting Dream, is on its way from the wharf in Germany where it was built and will embark Hong Kong early November. A second ship will be delivered next year.
Kung-fu sparring, Mahjong and Chinese dining
The Dream line will cater especially to Chinese travelers with a wide range of facilities and services, from tailor-made entertainment and dining to Chinese speaking European-style butlers.
The 335-meter, 20-deck ship has capacity to take almost 3,400 passengers and 2,000 crew. It has 35 restaurants and bars, serving dim sum, hot pot, congee, Sichuan dishes and other Chinese cuisine — as well as international.
In the water park area you can speed through six slides before heading to the bowling lanes, climbing wall, mini-golf course or the outdoor beach club.
And if that all seems a bit dull, you can always take a ride in one of the ship’s submersibles, capable of diving to depths of 200 meters.
“The submersibles are so cool,” Brown says with a grin. “I was onboard just a week ago.”
Not into sports? Not a problem. On stage, you can enjoy a theatrical representation of China’s Got Talent. There’s also a Latin ballroom dance show as well as a “dreamlike fairy-tale love story of an astronaut and a mermaid.”
What’s more, there will be a martial arts workshop with kung-fu star Juju Chan, famous from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s part of the operator’s inspirational events with famous guests, also including a NASA astronaut and an education consultant who will advise parents on how to get their kids into American schools.
To ensure that crew service holds to a high standard, all staff will have been trained at the company’s school in Shuozhou in east China, with topics including safety, food and beverage, languages and general good manners. All Chinese butlers, for example, are trained by European butlers and taught by a ballerina how to have better posture.
Gimmicks, gizmos and top-hole facilities aside, attracting the mainland audience in the first place is far from easy. Very few Chinese are aware of the concept. Asia’s cruise penetration rate — a popular indicator to estimate maturity of the cruise market — is only 0.05 percent, compared to North America’s 3.3 percent, according to the CLIA.
Brown says it will take time to educate Chinese consumers about cruises and developing an efficient distribution network in China.
“It’s very competitive. The demand is there; it’s just a matter of tapping in and wakening it up,” he said.
Clash of cultures
However, a cruise ship designed to be a dream for the Chinese might be a nightmare for non-Chinese.
There have been numerous reports on outrage about the behavior of mainland Chinese tourists at popular destinations, like by the Eiffel tower in Paris or at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Complaints rage from people drying underwear at a temple and defecating in public to spitting on restaurant floors. A famous temple in northern Thailand has reportedly built separate toilets for Thais and other non-Chinese tourists after Chinese tourists made lavatories unusable for others.
The situation has been so profound that Chinese authorities were required to urge citizens to act more civilized and distributed etiquette manuals.
So what will happen when, say, a European or American family is cramped together with thousands of Chinese on a cruise ship?
Brown says the potential clash of culture is an important task for him and his crew to manage. He refers to similar rattles in other parts of the world.
“Imagine you’re cruising in Buenos Aires and half the ship is from Argentina and the other half is Brazilian. And it’s the World Cup. Could you imagine what that would be like?” he says, continuing:
“In the Mediterranean you can have a group from Venice, one from Milan and a third from Rome. And believe me, managing that mix of Italians is equally challenging.”
He said knowledge among the staff on cultural differences as well as languages are key to managing a good guest mixes.
“You may serve fresh orange juice in the morning for Western travelers, but in the evening for the Chinese. You’ll give a glass of water with ice for an American, but warm water for the Chinese. The knowledge of selection of tea among the Chinese is like the one of coffee for the Italians,” he said.
“It’s not for us to judge, but to understand cultural differences and behaviors.”
Genting Dream is scheduled to leave Hong Kong November 12, with an official naming ceremony in Guangzhou’s Nansha port the following day and maiden voyage in mid-November to Hong Kong and Da Nang and Hanoi.