Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s prime island in the Gulf of Thailand close to Cambodia, is a destination for high-quality eco and beach tourism. Although most tourists arrive on the island by air – it even established direct connections to Singapore and Siem Reap (with access to the famous World Heritage Site Angkor Wat) – arrivals by sea only add a trickle. That, however, is going to change soon, given that the national government recently approved a feasibility study and proposal to build an international passenger port. Currently without a port, the island has only been able to welcome ships carrying less than 1,000 passengers, receiving some 20 cruise ships. During their visit, the vessels are required to anchor offshore and use smaller boats to ferry their passengers to the island and back.
The feasibility study predicts that by 2020 some 100,000 to 200,000 passengers will visit Phu Quoc annually via the sea route and 350,000 to 550,000 by 2030. With over 15 million cruise tourists worldwide, this may not look like overly impressive at face value. Yet, it is important news, because the island is located on a sailing route of many cruise lines operating along the Singapore – Thailand – Cambodia – Vietnam and North Asia countries’ sea routes. This is significant because it confirms a growing trend in ASEAN cruise tourism overall, thereby increasing the number of tourists visiting several ASEAN countries in the course of one holiday, one of ASEAN’s goals.
The Holland America Line, transformed from an old-fashioned ocean liner to a modern Cruise Company; plying the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and Scandinavian fjords.
Before digging into ASEAN’s cruise tourism growth, it has to be noted that cruise tourism can be sea or ocean based, river based or a combination thereof. Notwithstanding river based cruise tourism in the ASEAN countries being substantial and growing at a fast pace – especially in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region countries along the mighty Mekong – the emphasis of this blog is on sea cruise tourism. This is justified by the fact that 9 of the 10 ASEAN member states are surrounded by large swaths of easy navigable sea, numerous palm fringed beaches, thousands of dreamlike islands and an expanding numbers of ports of call steeped in maritime and colonial history. Moreover, in the past, the region proved to be an attractive area for cruise tourism, the history of which goes back decades.
Initially, in the 1970s, ASEAN was discovered as a cruise destination by intercontinental cruise ships. Soon thereafter, in particular during the winter season, when the Alaska and Mediterranean cruises were in the off-season, a group of ships started visiting the region. In the late 1980s, there was even an unprecedented demand for cruising towards Asia in the United States; such as, Singapore-based ASEAN tours during the winter season (from October to March). However, around 1990, these tours were eventually phased out due to increased demand in the Caribbean.
Sea Cloud II: Romantic, luxurious and adventurous cruises on board a true clipper,
Sea Cloud Cruises, Hamburg GmbH – 2001; Source:http://conwaypublishing.com
But in the mid-1990s, South East Asia’s cruise environment changed radically, brought about by the establishment of several regional cruise operators, which were aimed at tapping the rich regional potential of South East Asia as an international cruise tourism destination. However, during the regional economic crisis of 1997-98, many of these regional operators were forced to terminate their operations. While some others remained, it was only Star Cruises, founded in 1993, that proved to be able to rapidly expand its business scale. Nowadays, it is regarded as the third largest cruise operator in the world (after Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean) and the leading cruise line in the Asia-Pacific, primarily operating from Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. By the same token Singapore has continued to prove its suitability as a year-round cruise hub for over 20 years, while Thailand and Vietnam have started receiving a growing number of cruise ship calls as early as the beginning of the millennium.
But progress was not as fast paced as forecasts would have it. The 2 million cruise population predicted to be generated by 2010 within ASEAN proved to be far too optimistic; too great an extent attributable to the global economic crisis. Subsequently, it had to be scaled down.
For a long time, sea cruise tourism has been dominated by North America and Europe, with focus on the Caribbean and the Mediterranean; Asia, Africa and the South America lagging behind. Less than 10 years ago over 80% of sea cruise tourism took place in North America, representing roughly 55% of all cruise bed nights worldwide and Europe, with a 25% share of bed nights. South East Asia embodied a mere 5% of the global total bed nights.
The “MSC Opera”, an example of Mediterranean-style cruising by MSC Italian Cruises
By many an analyst this was viewed an underutilisation since most countries in the region had not been subjected to the full impact of regular cruise tourism onto their shores. Moreover they believed that, with the most popular cruise tourism destination, the Caribbean as a benchmark, South East Asia would be able to easily match that region’s facilities and amenities; such as, on-shore tourism resources, balmy climate, pristine sea conditions, routing opportunities and extensive network of ports and itineraries.
In other words, why was ASEAN not equally able to cater for year-round, satisfying cruise tourism? Why did it not fully tap its potential as a cruise destination and source market yet, especially with its elongated history of cruise tourism?
Well, it all boils down to what Christina Siaw, Singapore’s Cruise Centre CEO ascribes as “a current lack of cruise infrastructure and too few adequate ports, able to accommodate larger cruise ships” (op. cit. interview in “ASEAN Cruise News”, the region’s prime channel on the subject)[i]
But that is quickly changing as cruise lines relocate their ships to the south to meet the growing demand for unique and authentic experiences offered by South East Asian destinations, while local governments invest heavily in upgrading and building new ports to cater to larger cruise ships and improvement of their cruise terminals.
Singapore, for instance, revamped its Harbour Front Cruise and Ferry Terminal substantially, expanding passenger space, doubling check-in and immigration counters, increased security lines, and improving its baggage handling system. In addition, it built a complete new cruise terminal, The Marina Bay Cruise Centre Singapore (abbreviated as MBCCS) located at Marina South next to the Marina South Pier that opened in 2012.
In Indonesia, a cruise terminal and a yacht marina will be developed in Tanjung Lesung to boost tourism and serve as another gateway to the capital, Jakarta that currently has no real cruise port. At the same time, dredging work is being conducted at 19 ports nationwide; many of which were popular with cruise companies, including Tanjung Emas in Central Java and Palembang in South Sumatra.
In the Philippines, Sicogon Island – which has a history as a cruise destination began already in the 1970s, though gradually declined – will be rejuvenated to become a modern, attractive cruise destination again, next to the existing one at the famous Philippines’ island of Boracay. Northern Iliolo is also slated to become a major tourism cruise destination.
Malaysia’s government is supportive of making the country the main cruise tourism playground of the East to attract more visitors to ASEAN. Hence developing and upgrading hubs for cruise tourism, of which the plan is to develop a “Straits Riviera” – connecting six major ports at cities with historic and colonial reminiscence (Langkawi; Port Klang; Penang; Malacca; Kuching and Kota Kinabalu) – is a prime example.
Thailand is establishing new cruise destinations, like Ko Chang and Ko Phra Thong, next to improving the well-known ones, Phuket, Krabi and Ko Samui. They are also Thailand’s best leisure destinations for all traveller and marine transportation facilities in the heart of the ASEAN region. Thailand’s readiness in terms of transportation links and facilities, when combined with creative ideas in tourism, will certainly benefit all countries in the region.
The oasis and allure of the seas, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the world’s largest and most innovative cruise ships coming on steam during 2015.
These developments are very much in line with the adoption of a 21st century Maritime Silk Road by the Global Tourism Economic Forum (GTEF) in Macau (November 2014), along with infrastructure improvements and collaboration with neighbouring countries and the private sector to build a top-level Asian cruise tourism industry.
The Maritime Silk Road certainly is a necessity with more than 50 cruise ships (from Mega to Small) using Asian waters this year, which – according to the Asia Cruise Trends report 2014 – together will bring around 2.2 million cruise passengers to the continent in 2015, of which South East Asia will deploy 44% (a 10% growth per annum).
These ships no longer cater to the traditional cruise target segment (retirees) only, but to a variety of younger segments with above average income as well, and most importantly, a fast growing South East Asia middle class. In addition, offering more and more active, on-shore soft adventure and entertainment activities, and new or improved ports of international standards.
In short, with more modern and larger cruise ships coming off the wharves and increasingly plying South East Asian waters, ASEAN is quickly aiming at and claiming a bigger share of Sea Cruise Tourism.
[i]ASEAN Cruise News is an online Newsletter to serve as the link between ASEAN as a cruise destination and the travel industry launched in September last year by Sydney-based publisher “Cruise Media Australasia, on behalf of ASEAN.