Cruise bets big on China demand
With the current pressure on the container shipping and dry bulk sectors, as well as the carnage being experienced in the offshore sector, the bright spot for shipping – aside from the tanker market – is cruise shipping.
While it could be argued that cruise is not shipping at all, but rather stately floating hotels or gaudy resorts providing an all-you-can-eat holiday experience, the difference is semantic to an industry intent on further growth.
Last week the industry descended upon Miami for its largest annual conference and exhibition and the mood was certainly upbeat.
Industry leader Carnival announced record full year earnings for 2015 of $2.1bn, thanks to strong demand and lower bunker costs. Together with rivals Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line, the three control around 80% of an industry worth $40bn a year.
But with such success come concerns that the western market for cruising is close to peak demand, leading the big three to target the most lucrative emerging market of them all: China.
This makes cruise perhaps the only shipping sector that could directly benefit from China’s pivot from a production-led to a consumption-led economy. Whether this ultimately proves to be the case remains to be seen but the operators are betting big.
Carnival plans to increase its number of ships in China from four to six during this year and has previously announced a joint venture with a Chinese shipyard and a sovereign-wealth fund to establish the first cruise brand aimed specifically at the domestic market. RCL has added more capacity and will add more this year and NCL, which until now has steered clear of the market has plans to get involved by 2017.
All three lines want to take a further share of a market that is more lucrative than western cruising. The shorter itineraries favoured by Chinese passengers come at higher daily rates and they also tend to spend more on board – particularly in the casino and shops than their western counterparts.
There are also practical reasons for the lines to seek out new markets. Issues as broad-ranging as the Costa Concordia casualty, serious infectious outbreaks, passenger fatalities, technical problems and even the threat of terrorism, have cast a pall that the industry has worked hard to shrug off in its traditional markets.
Safety of navigation remains crucial and while serious incidents are comparatively rare, they draw headlines faster than anything except an oil spill.
Carnival alone suffered four breakdowns on four different ships in 2013 including one in which an engine room fire resulted in passengers sweltering in unsanitary conditions as the ship limped home.
Most recently RCL’s Anthem of the Seas suffered propulsion damage while navigating winter storms in the Atlantic in an incident severe enough to prompt the US Coast Guard to insist the Bahamas flag inspect the ship before it could be allowed to leave port.
What the operators are betting is that they can continue to tune their highly-developed brands to local tastes. This has been achieved in western markets by adjusting everything from décor to dining to suit demanding palates and purses.
Whether the Chinese continue to develop their love affair with cruising will depend on the willingness of consumers to dispose of their incomes this way. Carnival executives are on record predicting that China has the potential to become the world’s largest cruise market, though without a firm date attached.
But it seems that economics of shipping like the laws of physics cannot be overcome by a positive outlook. On an earnings call for the fourth quarter of 2015, Carnival CEO Arnold Donald observed that with the new capacity being deployed there; “China is a place where we are profitable, we intend to be profitable. And if things started moving in a different direction, or prices plummeted too far, we would pace the growth or we would change destinations for ships. We don’t have any interest in creating a market in China that’s a big discount market.”