China has long been rumoured to be the next big cruise market. It feels as though we’ve been discussing the potential of China – and indeed Asia – as a cruise market for years now. Cruise lines have made forays into the market and have experienced triumph – and seen shrinkage.

As recently as 2018, Cruise Industry News warned that cruise capacity was down year-on-year in China. They noted that 2019 would likely see the market peak at flat. However, they noted the scheduled influx of newbuild megaships were due to trigger ‘aggressive growth’ in the market. Since then, especially designed vessels such as Costa Venetia and Royal Caribbean’s Spectrum of the Seas have entered the market. In addition, a deal between Carnival Cruise Line and China State Shipbuilding Corporation saw an agreement for two vessels – Costa Atlantica and Costa Mediterranea – to join their new joint venture CSSC Carnival.

The state of play

Now, on the other side of 2020’s unusual circumstances, there have been some changes to the schedule. Costa Firenze, especially designed for the Chinese market, was due to join her sister Costa Venetia in 2021. She will now be sailing an amended Mediterranean itinerary to start. MSC Bellissima is now due to be sailing her first itineraries through Asian waters in 2021, delayed from 2020.

There are signs that growth continues, despite the unprecedented disruption to sailing in 2020. CSSC Carnival announced in November 2020 that dry dock work had begun on their first newbuild. The ship, due in 2023, is the first cruise ship designed for the Chinese market to be built on Chinese soil. Ahead of the launch, Costa Mediterranea is due be sold to CSSC Carnival in 2021.

Meanwhile, in river cruise news, Viking Cruises announced a joint venture with China Merchants Shekou. The statement, released in late 2020, reported that the China Coastal Cruise Project would bring luxury mid-size river cruise to the Chinese domestic market. The first step in the venture will be to lightly refurbish Viking Sun ahead of her sailing Chinese waters.

Refurbishment of Piano Land

Meanwhile, new Chinese cruise line Astro Ocean took advantage of the no sail order in 2020 to refurbish flagship Piano Land. Previously P&O Oriana, Piano Land had already made her debut in 2019. Astro Ocean reportedly refurbished the onboard HVAC and significantly increased the size of the retail area.

Is this China’s Cruise Market Moment?

With a positive but cautious start to 2021, it’s impossible to judge whether cruise will return to full strength. However, China’s cruise market is full of exciting moves. Refurbished vessels are leading the charge but with two new cruise ships due from CSSC Carnival in 2023 and 2024, there’s plenty to watch out for on the newbuild front.