The Chinese Cruise Market: From Rise to Fall to Resurgence

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Few global markets have experienced fluctuations as dramatic as the Chinese cruise market. Characterized by a swift rise in popularity, an abrupt decline due to the pandemic, and a promising comeback, the volatile journey of China’s cruise industry is watched with interest by industry insiders. 

From 2010 to 2020, China was on the edge of becoming an unrivaled force with an explosive increase in Chinese guests aboard cruise ships and a burgeoning ship construction industry heralding the rise of the Chinese cruise industry. Yet, the pandemic altered the course dramatically. Now, with concerted efforts, China is determined to reclaim its status as the world’s most significant emerging market in cruising.

The Prelude to The Pandemic

Before the pandemic and the global shutdown it caused, China’s cruise industry was on an impressive growth spurt. The country’s consumers were quickly becoming a dominant force in the cruise market, second only to Americans. 

From 2009 to 2019, the global cruise industry expanded annually by 5.28%, with passenger numbers soaring from 17.8 million to 29.7 million. However, in China, these numbers reached 70% in some years. Chinese passengers represented 8% of the global number of cruise passengers in 2019. 

While 8% might seem relatively few, consider that in the early 2000s, embarking on a cruise was an activity enjoyed by relatively few Chinese. This makes the post-2010 explosion in popularity and the rapid embrace of cruising by the Chinese market even more impressive. 

One area that symbolizes the growth the best is, remarkably, in Antarctica. The expedition cruise market was one of the first sectors in the cruise industry to recognize the possibilities that Chinese guests offered.

Spectrum of the Seas in China
Spectrum of the Seas in China (Photo Courtesy: Royal Caribbean)

In a decade, there was a dramatic increase in the number of Chinese tourists traveling to Antarctica. From fewer than 100 tourists in 2008, the numbers surged to more than 8,000 ten years later. With just 100-200 guests per ship sailing to Antarctica, the growth was significant.

In the 2017-2018 season, 8,273 Chinese tourists visited Antarctica by ship, accounting for 16% of the total visitors, making China the second-largest source of travelers to the continent.

An Unprecedented Challenge: The Pandemic’s Impact

Before the pandemic, almost every leading cruise company had vessels operating in China, with intentions to deploy additional ships and establish cruise ships and even cruise lines tailored for the Chinese market. It was surprising yet logical that companies primarily focused on North American and European markets would jump into the Chinese market.

However, perhaps the hardest hit of all during the pandemic was China’s burgeoning market. The sudden pause in operations resulted in a nearly three-year-long complete shutdown in China, almost devastating the Chinese market.

Yet, the resilience of the sector began to show as early as 2023 when China started to relax COVID-19 restrictions and opened its borders once more. 

Signs of the New Golden Age of Cruising

By the latter half of 2023 and into the early months of 2024, signs of a significant revival began to emerge within the Chinese cruise market. This was supported by the reopening of borders and the resumption of tourism. No surprise then that companies such as MSC Cruises are eager to return.

At a ceremony on March 18, celebrating MSC Bellissima as the first international cruise ship to sail from the Chinese mainland since the pandemic, Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises, emphasized the significance of China for his company.

MSC Bellissima, Shanghai
Photo Courtesy: MSC Cruises

“The restart of international cruise operations from China sends a strong signal to the world, and we are glad to experience the incredible speed of recovery here in the Chinese cruise market. China continues to play an important strategic role for MSC Cruises,” Onorato said.

Similarly, Royal Caribbean International will sail on 120 cruises through 2026 from Shanghai onboard Spectrum of the Seas. Viking Cruises has its own cruise division in China including ocean-going and river ships, and then there is the Carnival-backed Adora Cruises, both of which play an important role in how China’s cruise industry is growing.

Qiu Ling, chairman of the Shanghai International Cruise Business Institute, said to China Daily: “In the past few years, the participation of Chinese cruise companies including Adora Cruises and China Merchants Viking Cruises has not only brought more capacity to the Chinese cruise market, but also prompted the overall cruise industry chain to improve and develop.”

Government-Backed Growth

The first Chinese-built, and operated cruise ship, Adora Magic City, has seen a spectacular launch period, with sailings around the lunar new year sold out well in advance. 

China is also investing in infrastructure. The Wusongkou International Cruise Port in Shanghai is the largest in Asia, and of the biggest worldwide. The cruise port was built in preparation for what the local government expects to happen in the coming years.

Shanghai Cruise Terminal
Shanghai Cruise Terminal (Photo Credit: hsdc)

Projected to create an economic impact worth $81.05 billion by 2035, China’s cruise sector is on the brink of entering a golden age, driven by an anticipated surge in Chinese cruise passengers, and a ship-building industry that is rapidly developing.

To boost growth, the Ministry of Transport and other government organizations released a combined strategy to transform China’s cruise industry into a global powerhouse, forecasting 14 million cruise passengers setting sail annually by the year 2035. To put that in perspective, in 2024, the total number of cruise passengers is expected to reach 36 million worldwide. 

Read Also: Royal Caribbean Cruise Cancelled for Charter Sailing 

The efforts by the biggest names in the industry, with backing from the Chinese government, to rebuild China’s cruise industry shows its strategic importance in the global cruise sector. With infrastructure investments and strategies aiming to push passenger numbers to new heights, China’s role in cruising could be much bigger than many expect.

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