It is hard to believe that just a few years ago cruise operators were licking their lips over Asia, claiming the region offered the highest growth potential and would require more than 100 large cruise ships to meet demand.
As Chinese and other Asian holidaymakers took to cruising in an unprecedented surge, almost every major player sent their biggest and best ships to the region, and some even started building cruise ships tailored to the Asian market.
Since Covid 19, the market remains almost dead, with no apparent signs of a major revival any time soon. And China, the sector’s main consumer market and growth driver, which continues to doggedly pursue a zero-Covid strategy, remains off-limits with borders firmly shut.
Every other market in the region is seen as secondary by the major players. After the pandemic closed China’s borders, dozens of large cruise ships belonging to Royal Caribbean Group, Carnival Corp and other international majors left Asia, repositioning to replace vessels that were sold off or sent for recycling as fleets were trimmed.
Genting Hong Kong, the largest Asian-owned cruise player, became cruise’s biggest Covid-19 casualty when it filed for bankruptcy in January, leaving ships operated by its Dream Cruises and Star Cruises brands anchored off Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
TradeWinds understands that Genting and its liquidators — the Bermuda equivalent of a judicial manager — are working to rescue Dream Cruises. But if they fail, it will effectively put any potential future Asian cruise revival in the hands of international operators.
There are only five cruise ships operating in Asia today. Two are operated by Royal Caribbean International out of Singapore, where they run short “sea-cation” cruises that do not call at any other ports.
Singapore has just opened its borders to international travellers, as have the neighbouring countries of Malaysia and Thailand, which are the main destinations for cruises out of Singapore. But, so far, the authorities in these countries have not given the go-ahead for destination-orientated cruises to resume.
Royal Caribbean had been planning to base the 149,400-gt Spectrum of the Seas (built 2019) out of China during the 2022 summer season, but announced in early April that the ship would continue operating from Singapore due to China’s ongoing pandemic restrictions.
Elsewhere, Japan’s Venus Cruise, Mitsui OSK Passenger Line and Asuka Cruise each operate a single ship on domestic itineraries.
The pandemic has all but killed off Asia’s once large fleet of dedicated casino cruise ships — older vessels that took punters on short gambling jaunts out of Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
Although the casino cruise market had been in slow decline prior to the pandemic because of the growth of land-based casino resorts, Covid-19 sounded its death knell. Five of the remaining Asia-based casino cruise ships were subsequently sold for scrap, leaving just one vessel operating out of Penang.
The casino cruise trade was well removed from mainstream cruising, but it was a convenient market for mainstream operators to sell their obsolete cruise ships at their trading value while at the same time removing them from the regular markets.
The prognosis for Asian cruise looks quite bleak for the foreseeable future as many countries in the region continue to restrict cross-border travel.
The business will not recover fully until China opens its borders and the ships operating from its ports are able to call unhindered at destinations in nearby countries, analysts said.
That looks very unlikely, certainly for the rest of 2022.