When Adam Goldstein looks back 10 years at Royal Caribbean’s decision to enter a largely untapped, unknown market, his choice of words speaks to the caution with which the step was made.
“We began to think by 2004 or ’05 that it might be a market where we could take a limited calculated risk of taking one of our smallest ships for a few sailings and seeing if we could create attractive business,” recalls Goldstein, RCL president and COO.
So in 2007, RCL started operating in China, sending one Vision-class ship to Shanghai.
“We really didn’t know that it would or wouldn’t become a significant element of our portfolio,” Goldstein says. “But one of the great things about cruising is it’s pretty easy to experiment because the ships are mobile and we have ships of different sizes. So we took a shot.”
At the end of that first year, Royal Caribbean International was named “Best Luxury Cruise Operator” in Travel Weekly’s China Industry Awards, and more have followed in the decade since.
The successes in China are remarkable, Goldstein says, because in the early 1990s when he spoke at SeaTrade Singapore events, China wasn’t even on the map – literally.
“I noticed there was a map of Asia behind me on the screen,” he remembers. “And I saw that China wasn’t even called China. It was just gray.” It spoke to industry doubts, a decade before RCL arrived there, that China would ever be a source market.
By 2016, Goldstein says, “we probably had almost as many customers from China as the company had at the time that I saw that map.”
The interim saw a step-by-step ramp-up by RCL to serve a market that was awakening to cruising – and for that matter, outward-bound leisure activities – in enough numbers to merit sending more ships. Two Voyager-class ships were added, and two more offices were opened, one each in Beijing and Guangzhou.
But most significant, Goldstein says, was the decision to send Quantum of the Seas to China after its debut season in New York in the winter of 2014-15, upping the company’s capacity by 66 percent. It was so successful that the next year RCL sent its second Quantum-class ship, Ovation of the Seas, to Tianjin.
Having two of its newest, largest and most innovative ships homeport in China left “no way for our competition to match or exceed the impact of that competitive move in terms of our presence in the China market,” Goldstein says with obvious satisfaction.
“Clearly we’ve carved out the most compelling profile of any cruise operator in the China market today,” he says, adding for emphasis, “We’ve now taken close to 2 million Chinese customers on cruises.”
As the Chinese generate more income and the foreign concept of cruising becomes better understood, RCL will turn some attention from the eastern seaboard to inland population centers.
We feel like there’s way more opportunity than we have so far uncovered in our first 10 years,” Goldstein says.
It will be left to the rest of the industry to catch up, if it can.