A rise in the domestic Chinese cruise market has been going on for a few years, but now a new cruise line is bringing a relatively modern, well-appointed vessel into the trade under private Chinese ownership. The CHINA STAR is scheduled to begin service from Hong Kong on March 8, 2012. The rechristened vessel is the first of what is planned to be a fleet of four or five more ships for China Cruises Company, Ltd. owned by Huang Weijan, a millionaire entrepreneur from Zhejiang province of mainland China. At least initially, it appears the ship will continue to cater to the high-end gambling business on cruises customized to the mainland Chinese culture.
Cruises from Hong Kong are available on the newly renamed CHINA STAR, seen here as the gambling ship ASIA STAR. Published under Creative Commons license.
The ship was originally built in 1992 for Diamond Cruise as the RADISSON DIAMOND. Photo courtesy Radisson Seven Seas Cruises.
The ship will be familiar to many in the West. It was built in 1992 for Diamond Cruises, Ltd., at the Rauma Finnyards (now STX Europe, Finland) and leased to the Carlson Group of companies for their Radisson Seven Seas Cruises (now Regent) as the RADISSON DIAMOND. The 20,295 gross ton ship was the first large SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) design to be placed into commercial passenger service. At the time, this was thought to be the look of the future for cruise ships. Questionable aesthetics aside, the twin hulls bridged by several decks of superstructure, never caught on and the vast majority of cruise ships today maintain a more traditional mono-hull design. During the first phase of its career, the RADISSON DIAMOND was certainly considered a luxury ship, so it was somewhat surprising in late 2004 when the Finnish owners decided to sell the ship to Macau casino owner Stanley Ho for use as a gambling vessel doing overnight cruises. The ship was transformed with gaming equipment added to nearly every public area except the attractive dining room which overlooks the stern. It was renamed the OMAR STAR although a few months later the name was changed again to ASIA STAR. In 2007, the ownership changed with the ship registered to Treasure Ocean Ltd. but cruising under the working name Asia Cruises. Although based in Hong Kong the ship was registered in Nassau, Bahamas. It will be interesting to see if it now reverts to a mainland Chinese port.
The Grand Dining Room of the ASIA STAR as seen in this 2005 photograph was one of the few public rooms not altered for gambling.
Several international cruise lines based in the West have been making inroads in an attempt to capture a share of the huge, untapped market for Chinese cruise passengers. Most notably, Costa and Royal Caribbean have vastly expanded the size of the ships largely catering to the Chinese. This year Royal Caribbean will introduce the 137,276 gross ton, 3,114 passenger VOYAGER OF THE SEAS to China on a seasonal basis. Royal Caribbean has also been acting as a consultant with the Chinese as they begin to develop their own cruise business. Unconfirmed reports have circulated that China will construct their own 100,000 gross ton cruise ship soon in a domestic Chinese shipyard that has never previously built a passenger vessel. And beginning on March 20th, China World Cruises, a wholly owned subsidy of Beijing theme park developer Shan-Hai-Shu, and the Xiamen municiple government, will charter Royal Caribbean’s 69,130 gross ton LEGEND OF THE SEAS for a four month period.
The 20-year old CHINA STAR was purchased for approximately $45 million in June, 2011. The ship is 430 feet long (131 meters) with a beam of 105 feet (32 meters) and was originally designed to carry 354 passengers in 177 cabins. If the new China Cruises operation is successful, cruise programs will be extended to destinations in Korea, Russia and Japan.