More Chinese to Go on Caribbean Cruise? What The Emerging Middle Class in China Means to Global Cruise Industry

Flickr Chinese Dragon Year Statue

Flickr Chinese Dragon Year Statue (Photo credit:

Chinese grooms did not traditionally purchase diamond engagement rings for their prospective brides. It was only 20 years ago that diamonds begin to appear in engagement ceremonies among the Chinese elite. But smart marketing campaigns and the increasing purchasing power of China’s middle class have reshaped luxury spending over the last two decades. While the United States still leads the world in diamond demand they will eventually be replaced by China (not unlike the current Olympic medal count battle). Experts in the diamond industry put that timeframe in less than 10 years.

There is a strong analogy for the cruise industry.  Consider each cruise ship as a diamond, each seeking to discover new lucrative source markets to drive growth.

Most Chinese still think of cruise ships solely as a means of transportation and favor train and airplane. But as more and more Chinese open up to the idea that “a cruise ship is actually a floating five-star resort" (aka getting there is half the fun) their perceptions of cruising are also changing. "Cruise travel is becoming the new form of tourism favored by Chinese." Last year’s cruise statistics validate this claim (made during a cruise forum in northern China’s Tianjin): International cruise destinations from mainland China in 2011 increased by around 50% compared to 2010. This means the Chinese no longer just take river cruises on Yangtze, but are looking at more exotic and sunny destinations. A Mediterranean or Caribbean cruise is likely to arouse their fancy, if their recent exodus to Maldives and Guam are a leading indicator.

Global statistics show the bulk of cruise travelers come from North America followed in (far) second place by Europe, and then the rest of the world. Between 2008 and 2012, for example, North Americans outnumber Europeans by as much as 120%, and Europeans outnumber passengers from other countries by as much as 200%. But just as Cruise Market Watch brought to readers attention back in 2008, cruise line executives are looking east and the prospects are astonishing.

Even with conservative forecasts, the implications are far-reaching. In 2009, there were only 365,000 Chinese who went cruising (compared to 110,000 in 2008), a mere fraction of North America’s 12 million plus. But the world totals are likely to begin to skew in favor of the Chinese in coming decades if their luxury spending trends and evolving perception of cruise travel is any indication.

Forecasts on the high end have placed China’s outbound tourists to 300 million (all modes of travel).  This is roughly equivalent to an entire continent’s (North America or Western Europe) population.

Despite the glimmerings of economic recovery felt in leading source markets, the cruise industry as a whole will only see a relatively modest jump in cruise passengers in the next five years. Analysts predict that the economies of North America and Europe are likely to remain sluggish, and this translates to slower growth in consumer spending, especially on non-essential goods and services.

Looking at present statistics (20,135,000), the compound annual growth rate (just a little below 8%) will only result in about 28 million passengers in 2018, a mere 9.3% of China’s potential cruise passengers of 300 million.

The rough stone is ready to be cut into a faceted gem.  Cruise traffic going to China, which was only 750,000 in 2011, is also likely to increase. The Seatrade All Asia Cruise Convention descended on Shanghai in 2010 for the second time to open up Asia to international itineraries. China tops the list because of its touristic appeal: It has varied geography, a 4,000-thousand-year-old history, staggering archaeological discoveries and a huge population with immensely diverse regional customs and beliefs.

All these exciting developments mean one thing: China’s dragon is ready to breathe new fire into the cruise industry. All the cruise industry has to do is fan the flames.