Low-cost cruises are reeling them in

Casinos, banned on Japanese ships, tilt odds in Singapore firm's favor

by Mayumi Saito

Singapore-based Star Cruises, the leading ocean cruise line in the Asia-Pacific region, is enjoying an overwhelming response after it recently announced the operation of low-priced luxury cruises.

The foreign carrier’s Japan-based cruises operate casinos on the open sea, which is not allowed on Japanese-owned vessels.

The 25,000-ton SuperStar Taurus provides a three-night round-trip cruise from Kobe or Fukuoka via Pusan, South Korea. The liner also offers four-night cruises from the same destinations that include an additional stop in Beppu, Oita Prefecture.

In addition, there is a seven-night cruise that calls at the same destinations plus the South Korean resort island of Cheju, and Shanghai and Putuoshan, China.

Fares for the weekend-based, three-night cruise and the weekday-based, four-night cruise are about the same for the next two months — an inside two-person room for 30,000 yen; “the ocean view” for 40,000 yen to 50,000 yen; and “the executive suite” for 70,000 yen.

The fare includes meals, tea and snacks. Duty-free shops, a wide variety of fitness equipment and nightly entertainment are also provided.

The Kobe office of Star Cruises has been inundated with calls since company President Colin Au announced the trips last month.

Weekend reservations have predominantly been made by young women, while retired clientele account for the majority of weekday passengers, Kobe branch spokeswoman Sonomi Hamada said.

Takatoshi Ozaku, manager of the Tokyo branch, said the cheapest cruises are the most popular, but the casino is not always the center of attention.

The cruising business kicked off in Japan in 1988 at the prime of the bubble era. During that time, many companies used cruises as forums for employee training. Recently, however, customers have generally been wealthy people.

In 1998, the Transport Ministry set a goal of raising the number of annual cruise passengers to 1 million. Currently the number is around 200,000.

To achieve this goal, the ministry was to encourage development of attractive ports-of-call, promotion of flights to take advantage of overseas cruises and promotion of Japan-based cruising with local vessels.

Since regulations restrict Japanese vessels from managing casinos, their international business is limited, according to Mitsunori Nishimura of the Transport Ministry.

Luxury-liner cruises were traditionally perceived as an upper-class activity in Japan because people saw it as a high-cost, time-consuming pursuit.

According to Minoru Yoda, spokesman for the Japan Open-sea Liners Association, this is not the case. He said that while three Japanese liners are offering 100-day worldwide cruises this year, shorter coastal cruises are more typical.

According to Japan Travel Co.’s Web site, the 1998 hit movie “Titanic” helped raise the popularity of Christmas and Valentine’s Day weekend cruises, particularly among women.

Cruise liners and travel agencies have also begun cooperating to offer reasonable fares.

Star Cruises is now ready to add international routes to the expanding market. According to Hamada, its new vessel welcomes a wide range of customers in a casual setting.

While Au sees the Japanese market as critical, with huge potential, Yoda believes Star Cruises’ momentum will help initiate more opportunities for cruise operators in Southeast Asia.