[SINGAPORE] US-based Princess Cruises, the world's third largest cruise line, launched its first Singapore-based service on Thursday in a move to tap into the emerging Southeast Asian cruise travel market.
Industry players said a fast-rising middle class, which has fuelled a boom in budget air travel, is also likely to drive demand in the region's fledgling cruise market.
More than 2,500 guests were due to depart from the city-state Thursday evening aboard the 116,000-tonne Sapphire Princess for an 11-day voyage that will take them to Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand before returning, company officials said.
About 30 per cent of the passengers on the trip are Asians, said Farriek Tawfik, Southeast Asia director at Princess Cruises, which is part of the world's largest cruise group, Carnival Corporation.
The 18-storey luxury ship, stretching nearly the length of three football fields, will be based in Singapore until March next year, expecting to carry 40,000 passengers on voyages lasting from three to 17 days.
Princess Cruises said it will return for a second homeporting season later next year.
Cruise travel is still in its "infancy" in Southeast Asia partly because of "misconceptions" that such trips are boring and concerns over seasickness, Tawfik told reporters.
But "the potential for growth is vibrant and exciting in this region," said Tawfik.
Several other cruise liners have operations in Singapore, including Star, Costa, Cunard and Royal Caribbean.
The Cruise Liners International Association said in a report last week that the 52 vessels operating in Asia have the potential to carry 2.17 million passengers next year, up from 1.81 million this year.
Tawfik said Asian passengers currently make up seven percent of the total world cruise travel market, but this should rise to around 20 percent by 2020. Two thirds of the world's middle class will be in Asia by 2030, he said.
Cruise travel is already popular in China, Japan and Taiwan, but Southeast Asia's expanding middle class means it has potential for strong growth, he added.
Southeast Asia has 25,000 islands, compared with the Caribbean which has only 7,000 islands, said Tawfik.
"The Caribbean used to be what you call the Mecca of the cruise industry... but we have the potential to be just like them or better," he said.