The Henna, the nation's first luxury cruise liner, stops at Sanya Phoenix Island International Port on Saturday. A Chinese company spent hundreds of millions of US dollars buying the boat from an Australian company.
China's first luxury cruise liner, the Henna, left the southern resort island province of Hainan for her maiden voyage on Saturday, marking what experts say is a major breakthrough for the cruise industry.
The three-day, two-night voyage saw the vessel travel from Sanya Phoenix Island International Port to Halong Bay in Vietnam. A further 39 voyages to Vietnam are planned for its first cruise season, from January to April.
"Buying the Henna as the country's first luxury cruise ship has historic meaning, not only for the company but also for the country," said Zhang Hao, president of HNA Tourism Cruise and Yacht Management.
It marks the opening of the domestic cruise business and indicates a booming market potential, with annual cruise industry growth reaching more than 8 percent since the 1980s, much stronger than the global tourism industry's 4 percent, according to the China Cruise and Yacht Industry Association.
The association said China received 262 international cruise ships in 2011, a year-on-year increase of 17.5 percent, and 504,582 cruise travelers.
Faced with this booming market, the National Tourism Administration set 2013 as National Ocean Tourism Year. The State Council, China's cabinet, also wrote cruise industry development into the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) on marine economy development.
"The timing is good and we are taking the opportunity to be the first Chinese company to enter the cruise market," Zhang said.
The Henna was built in 1986 for Carnival Cruise Lines, a British-American-owned cruise line, and was originally called the Jubilee. The vessel was bought by the Chinese company in July from Pacific Sun P&O Cruises Australia for hundreds of millions of US dollars and refurbished at Sembawang Shipyard in Singapore, Zhang said.
He added that such a huge investment for a newcomer to the industry is a risk, but said the more than 70 percent booking volume for the Henna's maiden voyage has given the company confidence in potential demand in China.
The vessel, which is 223 meters long and 31 meters wide, has 739 cabins as well as a full range of living and entertainment facilities. About 1,200 passengers were on board for the maiden voyage.
They included Fang Yangzhao, a 69-year-old traveler from Guangdong province, who could not hide his excitement. "It's a good way to feel the charm of the ocean," he said.
According to cruise industry records, about 50 percent of passengers are aged between 20 and 40, while journeys are priced from 1,688 yuan to 15,888 yuan ($270 to $2,520).
To attract Chinese clients, HNA has made a series of adjustments to the Henna, such as including electric kettles in rooms, fitting out a mahjong room, and serving Chinese dishes.
The crew is more like an international family, with workers from around the globe all under the management of Star Cruises, the world's third-largest cruise line.
After its first season, the Henna will sail to Tianjin for its second season, which runs from May to October, with 40 four- to five-day voyages arranged around the Korean Peninsula.
Zhang said Chinese cruise liner routes are mainly based on short-term needs and short distances, and that HNA expects to introduce a second ship within three years.
"We'll open routes to Taiwan and Hong Kong when conditions are right," he said.
The cruise industry has been a hot topic for authorities, according to Hu Yueming, deputy director of the Hainan Tourism Development Commission. He said the province will accelerate development of the industry and build Hainan into a world-class mother port.
Sanya Phoenix Island International Port is in its second phase of construction, which will make it able to accommodate four cruise liners: one weighing 225,000 metric tons, one of 100,000 tons and two of 150,000 tons. Total investment is more than 1.6 billion yuan, according to the provincial tourism plan.
He Zhineng, deputy director of the Tianjin Tourism Bureau, said the cruise industry has great potential, and that the Henna's debut will bring a dramatic change to the domestic market.
In the 12th Five-Year Plan on marine economy development, authorities vowed to boost the industry and improve cruise transport in coastal areas including Dalian, Tianjin, Qingdao, Shanghai, Xiamen, Shenzhen and Sanya.
Although the central and local authorities sent positive signals to the industry, regulations and general market planning still need to improve, Zhang at HNA said.
"The cruise industry is just starting in China, and there is no general development plan or comprehensive regulations for companies to follow," he said.
Zheng Weihang, vice-chairman of the China Cruise and Yacht Industry Association, told a conference in July that the National Tourism Administration plans to draw up a development plan for China's cruise industry, which will include setting pilot cities and other fundamental work, such as expert training.
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