China is suddenly the hot spot for large new cruise ships, a development that could help cure the plague of overcapacity and low prices seen in the Caribbean market this winter.
The latest ship to join the fleet cruising from China is the Costa Serena, which will be stationed in Shanghai, starting mid-2015.
At 3,780 passengers, the Serena will be the largest of three Costa vessels operating year-round from China and the largest Carnival Corp. asset in the region. The company’s Princess Cruises subsidiary plans to offer a summer of sailings from Shanghai on the Sapphire Princess, starting May 21.
The Costa move comes on the heels of a head-turning announcement by Royal Caribbean International that it will put the as-yet-undelivered Quantum of the Seas year-round in Shanghai, after a six-month stint at Bayonne, N.J.’s Port Liberty from November to May.
Robin Farley, a leisure industry analyst at UBS Securities, said that, taken together, the moves have implications beyond the Asia market.
“We believe the emergence of China as a major sourcing market can provide new demand for tonnage that can be redeployed from more mature markets, which could also potentially drive pricing in those existing markets,” Farley wrote in a note to investors.
More specifically, she said, the withdrawal of the Quantum from the domestic market reduces Royal’s capacity in North America by 1.5%; the ship represents 3% of its 2014 Caribbean capacity.
Except for the Oasis-class ships, at 4,180 passengers the Quantum would be the largest ship in the Royal fleet.
The impact of the shift of the Serena is a little more indirect on the North American market, since it is currently deployed on Mediterranean and Red Sea itineraries.
But if the loss of one ship in those regions results in Costa shifting a ship from the Caribbean (in the winter) to cover the void, it could reduce capacity in the Caribbean another 1%, Farley said.
Although the changes are small in absolute terms, a reduction at the margins could have a relatively larger impact on pricing as supply and demand come back towards equilibrium.
Sourcing of cruise passengers in China on a sizeable scale only started in 2006 when Costa positioned its first ship there, the 1,000-passenger Costa Allegra.
Since then, it has ratcheted up capacity with a series of bigger ships, including the current Costa Atlantica (2,680 guests) and Costa Victoria (2,394 guests) operating from Shanghai.
The debut of a second brand, Princess, with its 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess, will increase Carnival Corp. capacity in China this year by 74%. Adding the Serena next year will mean 140% growth over two years.
Carnival has set up a dedicated unit in Asia (Carnival Asia, based in Singapore) and is laying the groundwork for selling more cruises to residents of that region, particularly in China.
“We have never been more committed to China as a market of great strategic importance for our company,” Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said.
Carnival has set up 10 offices in Asia, including five in China: Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou and Chengdu. It said seven of its 10 brands sail in Asia, and 23 ships will visit 90 ports with an estimated 1,439 port calls planned this year, including 220 in China.
Patrick Scholes, a leisure industries analyst with SunTrust Robinson Humphries, said the cruise lines are relatively slow to fully concentrate on China compared with other leisure industries. “It almost seems like the U.S. cruise lines are a day late,” he said.
Scholes pointed to the gaming giants like Las Vegas Sands and Wynn, who were not in the China market 10 years ago but “now they get the vast majority of their business out of Macau and China.”
Global hotel operators also converged on China about 10 years ago. “Now their strongest pipelines for opening new hotels are in China,” Scholes said.
Recently, Scholes said, cruise companies have started to shift their development attention to China. “Welcome to the party,” he said.
Scholes agreed that the increased desire to put competitive tonnage in China could help solve the industry’s structural impasse of recent years in which prices have been anemic even as capacity growth has been kept moderate.
“It sounds like [Caribbean] capacity for the first half of next year will be down simply because a lot of the ships are moving to Europe and Asia,” Scholes said. “So that will be a positive.”
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.