China's cruise ship industry is months away from its first home-grown vessel, but what's to come?

China's cruise ship industry is months away from its first home-grown vessel, but what's to come?

China’s first home-grown cruise ship will be finished this year. Photo: SCMP Pictures/Handout
China’s first home-grown cruise ship will be finished this year. Photo: SCMP Pictures/Handout

China intends to launch its first home-grown cruise ship later this year, marking the nation's first foray into a sector long dominated by European shipyards, while also representing a critical step in efforts to reduce its reliance on external sources.

What is China's first cruise ship, and what is its timeline?

Known as the H1508, the vessel has the distinction of being China's first home-grown cruise ship. Construction began in October 2019.

It is expected to be afloat by May, according to state media reports. Sea trials will start in July, and the ship will be named and delivered by the end of 2023, according to its maker, Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding.

Construction on the cruise ship is around 90 per cent finished, according to various state media reports. Attempts by the Post to reach Waigaoqiao and representatives within the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone this week were unsuccessful.

Will China build more cruise ships?

Yes, China is also currently building a second cruise ship known as the H1509, and it will be even larger than the first one. It has been in the works since last year.

Who is making China's first cruise ships, and who will they be delivered to?

The orders for the two cruise ships were placed by a joint venture between China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) and Carnival, one of the world's largest cruise operations.

CSSC was contracted to make the mega vessels in conjunction with Italian shipbuilding giant Fincantieri, and the ships are being constructed at the shipyard of Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding, a subsidiary of CSSC.

What do we know about China's first home-grown cruise ship?

China's first domestically made cruise ship will be 16 stories tall with more than 2,000 rooms and a capacity of more than 5,000 people. Its maker says it will feature a lavish assortment of entertainment facilities, including restaurants, bars, shopping malls, art galleries and spas.

The shipbuilder said the length of the cable layout in the vessel spans 4,200km (2,610 miles). In comparison, the distance from China's easternmost city of Fuyuan in Heilongjiang province to its westernmost city of Kashgar in Xinjiang is about 4,650km as the crow flies.

Why is China's first cruise ship a big deal?

China is the largest shipbuilding nation in the world, with a combined gross tonnage of around 40.6 million in 2021.

But large cruise ships remain the only type of advanced, high-value-added ships that China has yet to produce.

The delivery of the H1508 and H1509 is poised to represent a breakthrough in both China's shipbuilding industry and its advanced-manufacturing efforts in general, as the nation continues to take critical steps towards boosting its self-reliance in critical industries.

Large cruise ships, often called floating cities, are among the most difficult and intricate ships to make, due to the required technologies and the complexity of the manufacturing process.

The joint ventures between CSSC and Carnival and Fincantieri also encapsulate China's ambitious foray into the cruise ship industry.

Why is it so difficult to build cruise ships?

Building a cruise ship is an intricate process requiring millions of parts from thousands of suppliers. For example, the H1508 vessel needs 25 million parts, or about five times more than the C919 aircraft, China's home-grown passenger jet, and 13 times that of the Fuxing high-speed trains, according to CSSC.

Supplies and materials used on cruise ships require unique specifications. For instance, glasses must be thinner, and carpets and curtains need to be lighter. Elevators and central air conditioning must also meet certain qualities to cater to thousands of passengers and comply with international cruise industry standards.

Making a cruise ship and developing an industry from scratch is no small undertaking for China. Few domestic suppliers have the necessary experience to make specific cruise ship parts, nor are they familiar with international industry standards, so most supplies assembled on the ship need to be imported, adding to the already high cost.

As European shipyards have dominated the cruise-ship-building industry for decades, the international standards were essentially established and evolved there.

Materials, such as steel angles, are sometimes set according to the standards of local manufacturers, and it could be very difficult for Chinese factories to change their standards. It would be extremely challenging and time-consuming for Chinese shipyards to adopt the standards and make parts from scratch. So, they have little choice but to buy materials directly from Europe, study them, and aim to bridge the technical gap while incubating a domestic supply chain that will eventually support local manufacturing.

In addition to the manufacturing difficulties, the procurement of certifications also presents a huge challenge.

The global voyage of cruise ships requires that they adhere to the specific safety and environmental standards of each country where the ships make port calls. This includes everything from alarms to evacuation and sewage systems.

Why is China entering the cruise ship industry now?

Simply put, it is a huge market.

Since Costa Cruises became the first international cruise line to set sail from China, in 2006, its cruise industry has grown exponentially.

Cruises have become increasingly popular in big metropolises such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, as well as relatively smaller ones such as Chengdu, Qingdao and Xiamen.

China has been seen for years as having the potential to become the world's largest cruise market, possibly by 2030, with between 8 million and 10 million patrons per year, according to the most recent available estimates by the Shanghai International Shipping Institute from 2015.

Before the global pandemic, Chinese travellers used to be the biggest contributors to global tourism. A total of 155 million Chinese tourists travelled abroad in 2019, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and they spent about US$254.6 billion a year. That equates to an average of US$1,643 per traveller.

Who are the world's major builders of cruise ships?

The cruise ships are almost exclusively made by a few European shipbuilders, including Italy's Fincantieri Shipyard, Germany's Meyer and France's Atlantic Shipyard.

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