Cruise control

On the horizon: a new generation of Chinese-built cruise ships

Waigaoqiao-Shipbuilding w

In the dock: CSSC’s liner ambitions

Much has changed since 1844 when the author William Makepeace Thackeray was the first cruise ship passenger to write about his trip. Having travelled to Egypt and back aboard the Lady Mary Wood, Thackeray was effusive in his thanks to the crew, including “the cook with tattooed arms, sweating among the saucepans in the galley, who (with a touching affection) used to send us locks of his hair in the soup”.

Thackeray’s boat belonged to the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company, later renamed P&O. It had just won the first government contract to carry mail via steam ship and it decided to take paying passengers to fill spare capacity. In 1844 the Lady Mary Wood set out on its first journey, shipping mail and passengers from Southampton to Calcutta, Galle, Penang, Singapore, before finally reaching Hong Kong, where it docked in August 1845. Cruise tourism was born.

Fast-forward to 2018 and just over 4% of Americans went on cruises. That was about half of the 26 million passengers worldwide, with the Chinese the second largest group on 2.4 million.

Of course, if they take to cruising in the same proportions as the Americans, almost 60 million Chinese will be heading down gangplanks to destinations like Venice, swamping them in new arrivals. So this spring, American cruise line Carnival Corp decided to bring Venice to the Chinese instead. The Costa Venezia – the first in the Carnival fleet to be designed exclusively for the Chinese market ­­– has an atrium modelled on St Mark’s Square and real-life gondolas.

Changes in ship design like this herald an era when more cruise ships are made in China, rather than Europe. The leading players are positioning themselves accordingly: China State Shipbuilding Corp (CSSC) has just announced plans for a major alliance with Shanghai’s Baoshan government, while China Merchants Group has broken ground on a new manufacturing base outside Shanghai (Asia’s busiest cruise port), following delivery of its first ‘polar expedition’ vessel to America’s SunStone. The Miami-based company has ordered 10 more.

Just three years ago, China’s shipbuilding sector had no cruise ships on its order books at all. In the past their yards have struggled to win business because cruise ships are the most technically demanding to construct. The boat that China Merchants sold to SunStone had a 40% localisation ratio, for instance, although shipyard executives told that this would soon rise to 70% to 80% in the Chinese yards.

Social media commentators are impressed. “I hope our country can make amazing ones like the Titanic,” wrote one referencing the huge popularity of the film in China. Aurora Expeditions, the company leasing the Greg Mortimer, clearly hopes it will not meet the same fate. Its website boasts that the ship is designed to world-class polar standards.

Marketing materials for the boat focus on features like an inverted bow ­– designed by the Norwegian specialist Ulstein Group – that allows for smoother crossings.

CSSC, meanwhile, is forging various joint ventures with cruise operators and shipbuilders in a bid to win more of the order book. One deal with Italy’s Fincantieri (the largest of the cruise ship yards) is expected to yield eight to 10 vessels from the Waigaoqiao shipyard over the next decade. The first is scheduled for delivery in 2023 to another joint venture CSSC has established with Carnival Corp: CSSC Carnival Cruising. CSSC Carnival will take delivery of its first vessel, the Costa Atlantica, in December, after purchasing it from another Carnival offshoot.

In August Donald Trump ordered US companies to look for alternatives to Chinese suppliers. Carnival is an example of a US firm steering another course – betting big instead on China’s maritime tourists.

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