A picture taken on February 28, 2019 in Monfalcone shows a room decorated with images of Venezia of the Costa Venezia cruise (Costa group) at the Fincantieri's shipyard. (AFP/Miguel Medina)
A huge liner designed entirely for Chinese tourists around the ever-romantic theme of Venice sets sail from Italy this week hoping to consolidate Costa Cruises in the vast and burgeoning Chinese tourism market.
The Costa Venezia left the Fincantieri shipyard in northeastern Italy on Thursday for neighbouring Trieste. From there, it will head for China where it will carry up to 5,260 Chinese tourists on cruises from Shanghai to Japan, along with a healthy dose of Venetian kitsch, gondolas and all.
In a sign of the gap to be filled in the Chinese market, a sister ship will be launched next year by Italy's Costa Cruises, part of the huge Carnival Corporation.
The launching of Costa Venezia "is a very important moment in the history of Costa in China," said the company's Asia president Mario Zanetti.
"This is the first ship we're putting on the market, conceived since the start for Chinese tourists," he told AFP.
Italy-based Costa was the first to offer cruises to the Chinese 13 years ago.
"It was really Costa Cruises that started this type of tourism in China, in 2006, and now the Chinese market has become the second in the world, after North America," said Giuliano Noci, lecturer in strategy at Milan Polytechnic business school.
"From 2013 to 2016, the Chinese cruise market grew by 70 percent year-on-year, an impressive figure compared to Western markets," Noci told AFP.
After a slight drop in 2017 when China cut South Korean cruise destinations because of tensions over the deployment of a US anti-missile system, numbers are set to take off again.
Over the last 10 years the Chinese market has reached 2.5 million cruise passengers while a total of around 140 million Chinese are travelling abroad, said Zanetti.
"Cruises represent only around two percent of those (Chinese) going to foreign countries for their holidays. That shows you the potential for this market, which could become the world's biggest," he said.
But, warns Noci, "growth will also depend on what's on offer, especially how they can attract tourists from central China with innovative marketing. Shanghai inhabitants alone currently account for 40 percent of Chinese cruise ship customers."
Companies will also have to target the wealthy 25-40 year-old age group "which doesn't want just a cultural experience but a real adventure," said Noci.
11 karaoke rooms
Even as it cruises the high seas, the Costa Venezia takes passengers on a journey through Venice, via the central Saint Mark's Square bar to original gondolas and waiting staff dressed as gondoliers.
The ship also offers 11 karaoke rooms and plenty of gambling opportunities. Alongside Italian cuisine, the restaurants will serve authentic Chinese dishes to accommodate guests' dietary requirements.
Costa Cruises is investing six billion euros (6.8 billion dollars) from 2018 to 2023 to buy seven ships, after which it will have a fleet of 34, including five cruise ships in Asia.
Costa's owner Carnival is also working with Fincantieri and the China State Shipbuilding Corporation to build vessels in China, despite worries that technology transfers will enable Chinese shipbuilders to take over.
But Zanetti dismisses those concerns, saying they are working "in a spirit of partnership and in a market that has such a low penetration. The more cruise companies are present in the market, the more there are opportunities for growth."