With its jagged peaks of aluminum and glass, the roof of the Marina Bay Cruise Center in Singapore is meant by its designers to mimic the ocean crashing against the shore.
Three years in the works, the $409 million project opened officially last month with a fireworks display. The terminal investment comes as cruise lines push to develop Asia as the next growth engine.
While North America is mature and Europe sputters, passenger counts in much of Asia are growing by double digits. Old ports are expanding, new ports are being developed and China is taking steps to apply its industrial might to building cruise ships.
But to advance quickly, China and other Asian countries need the skills and processes that Western cruise lines have spent 40 years perfecting. Those lines bring expertise in everything from reservations systems to marine wastewater treatment.
The sale of cruises in Asia is part of a globalization of the cruise passenger base that is spreading from luxury to mass-market lines, some experts say. Eventually, that could mean fewer cabins being sold to the North American population and higher prices -- and higher commissions for U.S. travel agents.
Already, large, relatively new ships such as Royal Caribbean International's Voyager of the Seas (see related story, "On Voyager of the Seas, West meets East") and Princess Cruises' Sun Princess are being sold to Asian customers for part of the year. Princess and Royal Caribbean are testing the demand, as is Costa Cruises, which was the first Western-owned cruise line to market in China.
"You have to begin with China," said Rod McLeod, a former cruise executive who is now a cruise consultant, based in Weston, Fla. With 1.3 billion people, he said, it is first on everyone's agenda, because even a small fraction of that population is a big number.
"You don't need that much of a sale to set off an enormous boom," McLeod said.
Asia's other countries have their own allure.
Although its growth is slower than China's, Japan is the most developed country in Asia, with a per-capita income of nearly $46,000 last year. It has well-built harbors and can provide rich itineraries.
Princess Cruises will sail a series of nine- to 12-day Japan cruises between April and July next year, mainly from Yokohama. It has been selling the voyages since earlier this year and hopes to carry 18,000 passengers on the Sun Princess during its campaign there.
Australia is also hitting its stride in cruising. The Carnival Spirit last month became the largest ship based year-round in Australia. Not strictly a part of Asia, Australia nevertheless is a close neighbor that can attract Asian travelers to ships sailing from its ports. Australia's proximity also supports deployments that split time between Australia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and China, cruise executives say.
The first trickle of interest in China as a source market came in 2006, when Carnival announced it would send the 820-passenger Costa Allegra to begin developing a Chinese clientele.
Now the test period has yielded to a growth stage, in which bigger ships are being substituted for smaller ones. Two years ago, Costa pulled the Allegra, and it now uses the 1,928-passenger Costa Victoria in China. The 2,112-passenger Costa Atlantica will replace the smaller NeoRomantica on Asian routes in 2013.
Royal Caribbean, too, started small in 2008 with the 1,804-passenger Legend of the Seas. It added the 3,114-passenger Voyager of the Seas this year, and next year it will replace the Legend with the Mariner of the Seas, which also carries 3,114 passengers.
"To put two of the best pieces of hardware we have in Asia says a lot," said Lisa Bauer, executive vice president for global sales and marketing at Royal Caribbean International.
Bauer said the Chinese she met on a recent trip to the Far East are enamored with Western culture. "They don't want to go on Chinese product," she said. Royal Caribbean is hoping to find special ways to connect with the Chinese.
So, for example, Royal is using the Western movie "Kung Fu Panda" as a selling point because it has partnered with DreamWorks Animation to feature the studio's animated characters onboard.
"Kung Fu Panda" is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time in China, Bauer said. The DreamWorks characters, she said, "are core to our brand, but ['Kung Fu Panda'] crosses over so nicely in China."
Royal has also changed its food and restaurant mix on Voyager, but it has left some of the specialty restaurants, such as the Italian-themed Portofino, untouched. On her recent visit, Bauer said, "It was sold out every night."
The trick, she said, is to tailor the onboard experience to Chinese tastes but keep Royal's brand identity intact.
One very clear market differentiator, she said, is demographics. Because per capita income in China is still only $5,000 a year, cruise lines would do best to direct their efforts to the luxury elite rather than to the general population, said Pierre Gervois, CEO of China Elite Focus Ltd., a tourism marketer in Shanghai.
"The affluent Chinese tourists, they want to compare the cruise experience with what they have in China," he said.
Social media sites, such as Weibo, are a tool cruise lines should use to educate and influence prosperous Chinese about cruises, he said.
Bauer said the Internet is the most trusted source of information for Chinese consumers. "It's not a place where people transact, but it is where they look for and talk about cruises."
When it comes to sales, Royal is selling more than half of its cruises as whole-ship charters to wholesalers who then are responsible for filling the ships through their retail contacts.
"It's completely different than anything we've seen elsewhere in the world," Bauer said.
McLeod said that model reduces the risk for Royal in a country where it is still learning the territory. "They don't have to be concerned about local regulations related to marketing and setting up distribution," he said.
But it also leaves the Chinese in charge of retail pricing and customer information. And at some point, China could develop its own cruise capacity and stop chartering Western ships, McLeod said.
China hosted 262 cruise ship calls in 2011, according to the China Cruise and Yacht Industry Association. That's up from 223 a year earlier. About 504,500 people left or arrived at Chinese ports on cruises last year, according to the China Communications and Transportation Association.
To attract cruises, ports across Asia are improving their infrastructure. The Marina Bay terminal in Singapore is a good example. Previously, there was only a two-ship pier in a dead-end channel that limited the size of ships that could call in Singapore.
Adding a terminal to the Marina Bay area doubles the number of ships that can call and provides a deep channel with a wide turning basin that can accommodate even Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships. The terminal itself is about 300,000 square feet and can handle 6,800 passengers at a time. Singapore hopes it will cement the city's position as the gateway for cruises in Southeast Asia.
Shanghai opened a new cruise terminal on the Huangpu River last year that features an ultramodern building with suspended pods called the "Shanghai Chandelier." It can dock three ships and handle 1.5 million passengers, although a low bridge between the terminal and the sea limits the ship size to about 90,000 gross tons.
Other Chinese cities are in what amounts to a municipal competition to become cruise hubs. In northern China, Tianjin has become the summer homeport for both the Voyager of the Seas and the Costa Victoria.
The industrial city of Xiamen has ambitious plans to enter the cruise market in southern China.
But while the homeports are improving, experts say outlying ports that provide stops on Asian cruises are still raw. As cruise ships grow, the limitation may be the capacity of some ports to process visitors.
"We can't bring 3,200 guests to a port that is not prepared to handle them," said Royal Caribbean's Bauer.
Shore excursion and tour infrastructure is also in an early state of development in many Asian destinations.
"This is probably consistent with what evolved in the Caribbean when cruise ships started calling on those islands," said Christine Duffy, president of CLIA, who recently completed a trip to Asia.
When it comes to what Chinese and other Asians want in a cruise, there is still a lot of trial and error.
Shopping for international brands in duty-free stores, casino gambling and spa treatments are some of the things that might appeal to Chinese cruise passengers, Gervois said.
One problem is that many Asians aren't even aware that cruises exist as a vacation option, said Robert Li, professor at the school of hotel, restaurant and tourism management at the University of South Carolina.
"Cruise is pretty new to Chinese consumers," Li said.
Research is hard to come by, but in a 2007 survey that asked 7,000 Chinese consumers what was important when traveling outside of China, trying a cruise did not rate in the top 15 responses, Li said.
"It was kind of a niche market at that point," he said.
Top answers included visiting historical/cultural heritage sites, sightseeing in cities and beaches/sunbathing.
Cruise companies are betting they can change that and have devoted resources to the project. Royal Caribbean plans to have 10% of its capacity in Asia/Pacific markets next year, a 46% increase.
Meanwhile, capacity in North America will grow just 4%, and European capacity will shrink 10%.
Both Carnival and Royal have told investors that expenses will be going up next year as they ramp up spending in Asia.
One big expense is building IT systems using the thousands of complex signs in written Chinese. The cruise lines are also setting up offices to handle logistics, strategy and sales. Royal Caribbean has three offices in China. Carnival Corp. set up a Carnival Asia subsidiary in Singapore and tapped former Costa chairman Pier Luigi Foschi to run it.
"It's critical that we increase our presence in the region," Carnival Corp. Chairman and CEO Micky Arison said.
Costa will source about 60,000 passengers in China this year, Carnival Vice Chairman Howard Frank said at the company's annual meeting in June.
As they secure their toehold in Asia, cruise lines from North America can see competition on the horizon.
In China, the former Radisson Diamond is being refurbished by China Cruise Ltd. for voyages as the China Star from the city of Zhousan.
Malaysia-based Star Cruises, with five ships, has nearly two decades of experience catering to Asian passengers. It sails from six homeports in China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore.
In recent years, Star's parent company has focused most of its expansion efforts on Norwegian Cruise Line, in which it owns a half interest.
In Southeast China, Xiamen has a comprehensive plan that started with a new terminal, which it hopes to surround with an entertainment and luxury shopping complex called "Cruise City." Construction has also started on a 100,000-ton ship to sail from Xiamen. Budgeted at $488 million, it would be the first large cruise ship built in China.
"It will be interesting to see how it comes out," said McLeod, who noted that China has both an active shipbuilding industry and a cost advantage in many types of industrial production.
McLeod said the type of onboard revenue generated has a big impact on ship design and that ships built for a Chinese or Asian passenger may eventually look quite different from the U.S. model, in the same way that ships built for German lines are different.
Although cruise is in its infancy, about 70 million Chinese went abroad in 2011, and that is projected to rise to 80 million this year. The appetite for growth in cruising is evident, said Bauer, who talked to Chinese officials about their plans on her recent trip.
She said the biggest challenge might be to keep the growth expectations realistic.
"They want to get to the same place in three or four years that it took us 30 or 40 years to get to," she said.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.