Princess Cruises leads industry’s wave of interest in Japan

The Diamond Princess in Kagoshima, Japan.
The Diamond Princess in Kagoshima, Japan.

Cruise offerings in and around Japan have been rising in recent years and are poised for growth in 2020, with several lines that had not previously sailed in Japan featuring circumnavigations.

A record 1.5 million Americans visited Japan in 2018, and cruises accounted for 3.3% of the total, or about 50,000 visitors, according to Princess Cruises, the leading carrier of foreign passengers to Japan.

Cruise calls at Japan's numerous ports have climbed fourfold, from 373 in 2013 to 2,013 in 2017, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). Calls dipped 5% last year, but with new entrants entering the market in 2020, numbers are expected to rise again by next year.

Much of the growth has been fueled by Princess, which started with a summer season in Japan in 2016 for its Diamond Princess. This year, the 2,706-passenger ship is deployed there for 10 months, from February to late November.

"Japan's been great, considering how tenuous it was when we started," said John Chernesky, senior vice president for North American sales and trade marketing at Princess.

Back in 2016, Princess had hoped to draw mostly Japanese passengers with the Diamond Princess, one of the few cruise ships built in Japan. But Princess was new to the market and didn't fully understand the distribution system, Chernesky said.

As a result, it ended up with more passengers in its first year from North America and elsewhere outside Japan.

Today, Princess has a better handle on the mix, Chernesky said. 

"I was there in May on a voyage that was half and half -- one half Japanese and the rest North Americans, Europeans and Australians," he said. "The voyage after us was almost entirely Japanese."

He added, "It's quite amazing. The Japanese don't travel as much as perhaps North Americans would on vacation, so when they do, they haven't seen their own country, so it's just a great way for them to experience it."

A successful strategy for Princess has been to organize and market cruises around Japan's seasonal festivals and to time them properly to the areas of the country that Japanese want to visit in each season.

Source: Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

This year the Diamond Princess' itineraries in Japan include seven festivals and five spring flower voyages.

The May voyage in which Chernesky participated marked the inauguration of a partnership with the JNTO. It was organized to highlight some of Japan's lesser-known tourism areas, such as the Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu regions. Onboard were 140 North American travel agents affiliated with Ensemble Travel Group. 

In all, Princess offers 63 departures on 44 itineraries of five to 28 days in Japan, including 10 ports with late-night calls.

Cunard, Crystal get in on the act

The growing success of Princess in Japan was not lost on Cunard Line, which shares marketing offices with Princess in North America. Steve Smotrys, vice president of sales for Cunard North America, said some of its best-booked cruises for next year are a series of Japan circumnavigations, roundtrip from Tokyo.

"We tinkered a little bit with it on our World Cruise, and the World Cruise segment in Japan has been doing extremely well," Smotrys said. "So we felt this was the right year to make a dedicated roundtrip around Japan."

Cunard is offering two nine-day cruises and a seven-day trip during Japan's Golden Week celebration in early May. Prices on the 2,092-passenger Queen Elizabeth start at $1,329 per person.

Also inaugurating a Japan cruise next year is the new 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor, whose 17-day circumnavigation is sold out at prices starting at $18,699.

"It's definitely one of, if not the most, popular itinerary in Crystal Endeavor's inaugural season," said Mark Spillane, director of sales and marketing for Crystal Yacht & Expedition Cruising.

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