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The People’s Republic of Cruiseland …

The People’s Republic of Cruiseland …

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  • The cruise industry is coming to China.


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  • Tai Chi on the lido deck, anyone?

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  • Bloomberg aboard the Costa Atlantica…
  • Aboard the Italian-themed cruise ship Costa Atlantica, two days’ sail from the coast of China, at a special dinner for high-paying passengers, head chef Daniel Martinez began by explaining the concept of bread. “The bread, for us,” he said, “is like for Asian people, the rice.”
  • The eight Chinese guests at our table listened attentively as a crew member translated into Mandarin. Diners at other, less premium tables leaned in to hear the speech.
  • Waiters brought baskets containing four fresh-baked masterpieces, including a Neapolitan specialty with cheese and bits of ham.
  • “Buon appetito!” said Martinez, and the phrase echoed tentatively around the table.

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My neighbor, a silver-maned 65-year-old from Shaanxi province named Li Chenggang, barely touched his bread. Nor was he fond of the pan-fried marinated sesame shrimps, the mascarpone cheese mousse in cold tomato soup, the linguine pasta with lobster sauce, the sambal codfish, the glazed pork belly, or the dark chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream. “I’m not used to eating Western food,” he said. When Martinez explained the science behind wine pairings, the translator stumbling on the Chinese word for “tannins,” Li left his glass unsipped. I asked what he thought of the meal. “To be honest, it’s awful,” he said, adding that he preferred biang biang noodles, a simple Shaanxi dish.

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“There must be class divisions,” said the former Mao disciple, smoking inside his deluxe cabin…

As with most of the 2,635 passengers on the ship—98 percent of whom were from China—it was Li’s first time taking a cruise. A self-declared workaholic, he spent his career at a successful architecture firm in Shaanxi province. Wanting a treat, he’d signed up himself and his grandniece Lin Ruijuan, a medical student, for one of the cruise’s most expensive packages, a $4,000 suite with a balcony and a never-ending supply of fruit plates. So far, he wasn’t impressed. The service was “cold,” he said, and there wasn’t enough Chinese food. His main complaint: The special treatment he was receiving wasn’t special enough. “Money speaks for itself,” Li told me. “I have money.”

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American President Lines served China up until 1949… 

So do hundreds of millions of Chinese like him. And if the global cruise industry doesn’t yet know how to make Li happy, it’s doing everything in its power to learn. As the markets in the U.S. and Canada approach saturation, the heavyweights of luxury cruising, particularly Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises, have been sailing east. Costa Crociere, which is owned by Carnival, was the first company to enter China, in 2006, followed by Royal Caribbean in 2007 and Princess Cruises, another Carnival brand, in 2014.

Passengers boarding the SS President Wilson in Shanghai - 1949. Just before the Communist takeover of China.

Passengers boarding the SS President Wilson in Shanghai – 1949. Just before the Communist takeover of China.

Now the companies are engaged in an arms race of pampering-at-sea. In March, Costa launched the first around-the-world cruise from Shanghai. Carnival recently signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s largest shipbuilder to explore creating a new Chinese cruise line. Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, decided it’s going to need a bigger boat: In June the company will bring to Shanghai its newest ship, the theme-park-on-water Quantum of the Seas, to travel year-round, followed in 2016 by its 167,800-ton “little sister,” Ovation of the Seas, sailing from Tianjin.

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The cruise business in China is still small. In 2014 about 700,000 Chinese travelers cruised, compared with 10 million Americans and more than 6 million Europeans. But the numbers are climbing rapidly—an increase of 79 percent from 2012 to 2014—and the ceiling isn’t yet visible. In the U.S. and Australia, about 3.5 percent of the population cruises each year; the proportion in China is less than one-sixtieth of that. Some forecasters estimate that China will be the No.?2 market by 2017—and that it could eventually replace the U.S. as the largest in the world.

Local governments have already built cruise terminals in Sanya, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Xiamen, with more on the way in at least four other coastal cities. Cruise companies are bringing ships to China as fast as the ports can squeeze them in. But the hardware is the easy part. The software—the onboard experience of the Chinese customer—is still in beta. Localization itself is nothing new; brands from KFC to Oreo as well as Hollywood studios have tailored their products to the Chinese market, with varying levels of success. For cruise companies, it’s more complicated than hiring a Chinese celebrity spokesperson or throwing in a green tea flavor. They must rethink the entire cruise experience, from food to décor to how a rapidly capitalizing society thinks about class and luxury.

In the U.S. and Europe, cruising evokes a ready set of images: retirees, Hawaiian shirts, piña coladas, the Macarena, Croakies. Since The Love Boat premiered in 1977, cruises have become floating symbols of the leisure-industrial complex. They represent the apotheosis of the American dream or, in the eyes of literary depressives such as David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, its ultimate emptiness. Most Chinese, meanwhile, have only a vague notion of cruising, if they’ve heard the term at all. The first drop-down menu on the Chinese website for Princess Cruises asks, “What Is a Cruise?” The country is, in the words of Carnival Chief Executive Officer Arnold Donald, “a blank sheet of paper,” with a rising middle class whose consumption habits are still up for grabs. Then again, cruise companies have to explain to customers not just what differentiates their brand but why they should spend a week on a boat in the first place.

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To find out how the Chinese cruise, I signed up for a six-day voyage with Costa over Chinese New Year in February, departing from Shanghai with stops in Japan and South Korea. The promotional brochure was a jumble: a pristine blue ocean seen through a porthole; the elegant actress Gao Yuanyuan, holding a masquerade mask and casting a sultry look; the popular Chinese cartoon characters Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf dressed up as sailors; the logo for the cruise’s theme, “Carnival of Venice”; and a pun on the Mandarin words for “cruise” and “to enjoy a trip,” which can also mean, unsettlingly, “have a good swim.” I looked out my apartment window at the pitiless concrete tundra of Beijing in winter. It sounded perfect.

Rain poured as the taxi approached the Wusongkou International Cruise Terminal in north Shanghai. Through the mist, I could just make out the silhouette of a ship. Nearby, a large tent served as a holding pen for the thousands of travelers getting ready to board. “It’s like a supermarket,” said one woman as we passed through the vertical plastic flaps that served as a door. Families jostled past with enormous DayGlo roller bags. A small girl in a flower-print jacket was screaming. Despite the mayhem, I found Ka, my photographer, a compact Shanghai hipster, fashionably appointed in a wool vest and round glasses. “Too many people,” he said. “Too loud.” In China, that’s saying something.

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Lining the periphery of the tent were more than 50 tour guides, each responsible for a few dozen passengers. Per Chinese law, travelers can’t book an international cruise directly but must go through a Chinese tour company. We spotted our guide, Yi Hua of China Youth Travel Service, at Table 5. She wore a neon yellow vest, had red streaks in her hair, and exuded patience amid the chaos. She checked our names off a list—guests in our group hailed from all over the country, including Chongqing, Guizhou, Lanzhou, Nanjing, Shaanxi, Shenzhen—and gave us each a lanyard and a “Costa Card,” the main purpose of which was to make buying things as easy as possible.

We dropped our luggage and lined up to board. Outside food was forbidden on the ship, so guests gathered in a small cafe area to scarf down one last bowl of instant noodles. Just beyond customs, an electronic bullhorn on a chair looped incessantly. “Welcome to the duty-free store!” it barked. “When you come back to China, you can’t buy these items anymore! Don’t miss this opportunity!” Import duties on luxury goods in China run as high as 40 percent, so duty-free shopping is a major draw for Chinese traveling overseas. Something told me this wouldn’t be the last such “opportunity,” but the urgent appeal seemed to work. Guests roamed the harshly lit store scrutinizing cigarettes, perfume, and high-end rice cookers.

As we filed up the gangplank, we got our first look at the ship itself. The Atlantica was big, no doubt—the length of almost three football fields and, according to the coffee table book about the ship I was given, as tall as the facade of the Milan Cathedral. But in China, home to the world’s largest building, public square, aquarium, sea bridge, and high-speed rail network, scale is relative. Peering up at the white leviathan, the guests around me exhibited less a sense of astonishment than, That seems about right.

At the gangway, senior members of the hotel staff, wearing crisp, dark blue suits with gold-braid rank stripes on the sleeves, lined up to greet us. A well-ballasted man with a cue-ball dome and a trim goatee extended his hand. “Welcome aboard,” he said, introducing himself as Marco Civitella, the hotel director. His job was to make sure every passenger lived in a state of constant if not escalating bliss. Another crew member placed a red envelope containing two chocolate coins in my hand, a riff on the Chinese New Year tradition of giving money to friends and family. When it came to adapting to local culture, bribery seemed a wise place to start.

Boarding the Atlantica was like passing through a portal. On one side was China; on the other, a mishmash of Italy and Vegas and the past and the future and luxury and trash and fact and fiction and the ocean and the moon—in short, Cruiseland—with Chinese characteristics. After dropping our bags in our small but sumptuous cabins, Ka and I reported to the main entrance deck, known as Dolce Vita Hall, where the “Captain’s Welcome” was under way. Red Chinese lanterns hung from chandeliers, and a string of Chinese national flags danced overhead. A live band played, while a team of crew members wearing sailor’s uniforms showed a packed dance floor the moves to Little Apple, the ubiquitous 2014 song that’s often described as China’s Gangnam Style.

In a Venn diagram of cruise culture and Chinese culture, line dancing would fill a good portion of the overlap. In cities, women congregate in public spaces to blast music and dance synchronously for hours; the practice is so popular, the government issued regulations dictating appropriate dance moves. It was clear, however, as I watched one mother shake it like she was on Soul Train, that such rules now applied about as much as gambling laws. Line dancing was a clever opener, signaling to guests that they’d be experiencing something new, but not too new. Surrounded by so much gyration, I didn’t even notice when the ship started to move. We were at sea.

Off to the side of the dance floor, I was perusing the snack options—milkshakes and chocolate-covered apples—when I heard someone shout in English, “Topless!” One of the crew was selling tickets to Blue Velvet, the burlesque show scheduled for the last night of the cruise. Seeing he had my attention, he cupped his hands a short distance from his chest. “Very big!” he said, grinning. I was surprised that a cruise geared toward Chinese families would have a strip show. I later learned that Costa offers this show only in Asia, where, in the words of Cruise Director Giovanni Azzaro, “they’re a little shy, but curious.”

At the stage show I attended that evening, a pop music revue called Solid Gold that included dance numbers based on Thriller, I Will Survive, and songs from the Spice Girls, the audience reacted with near-silence. When a risqué striptease to You Can Leave Your Hat On ended with the dancers in nothing but briefs (and hats), the woman next to me furrowed her brow in concern. Later, I asked Lin, the medical student, what she thought of the show. “I didn’t understand the lyrics,” she said diplomatically, before admitting that the lyrics were perhaps not the point.

Azzaro said that Chinese audiences just have a different way of showing their appreciation. “They are not used to seeing the girls in the bikinis. They’re like, ‘Whoooooaaaaa,’?” he said. “But we always get good comments.” The audience did seem engaged. Despite the preshow announcement that photography wasn’t permitted, the orchestra level was a galaxy of tiny lighted rectangles. One man stood up and rested a giant SLR zoom lens against a post for stability. “We say in Italian, ‘It’s a lost war,’?” Azzaro said.

The following night’s show, Magika With Ivan and Julia, went over better. Magic, I thought, as I watched Ivan shove a half-dozen blades through a box containing Julia, is universal. The audience applauded every stunt. For Chinese cruises, Costa chooses performances that emphasize the physical over the verbal. Instead of a comedian, they feature a circus act; instead of a hypnotist, a magician. I asked Azzaro whether he considered incorporating Chinese-style entertainment, like Peking opera. “Frankly, no,” he said. The point was to offer Chinese customers a chance to see something new—and to avoid any gaffes. To appropriate a culture that “we don’t know deeply,” he said, “could be a mistake.”

Emerging from the theater, I came across a noisy group crowded around a small dance floor. In the center, a blindfolded old man was getting a lap dance—from another man wearing a blond wig and a red dress stuffed with two balloons. When the blindfold came off—“Take a look at your girlfriend!” said the MC—the old man gave a good-humored smile, and everyone burst out laughing. Rampant timidity suddenly seemed like an imperfect explanation for the silence during the stage shows. More likely it was the novelty: Audience reactions, whether it’s throwing up a fist at a rock concert or hooting at a strip club, are learned behaviors. Just as Costa was learning what Chinese guests wanted, the guests were learning what they were supposed to want and how to express that.

The last event on the schedule was Singles Night, located way down in the nether-decks at a eurotrashy disco called Dante’s. When I arrived, I assumed I was early. Or late. As it turned out, the event lived up to its name, as there was only a single person there: me. I chatted up one of the bartenders, a young Chinese woman with tortoiseshell glasses who’d sailed in Europe before. There, she said, people would stay up dancing till 3 or 4 a.m. In China, the club was almost always empty. The bars, too, since Chinese customers don’t drink much. “You have to offer many times before they’ll buy a drink,” said Zhang Longjun, another bartender at the club. Finally, a few teenagers came in and ordered cocktails. I asked them why they weren’t dancing. They said they didn’t know how. I danced alone for a minute in the purple-and-blue lights and went back to my room to sleep.

Tai chi is difficult anywhere, but it’s a lot harder on a boat, where even mild rolling and pitching make balance all but impossible. I’d risen early for class, held beside the indoor pool, eager to get my qi right for our first full day at sea. Now, as I tried to imitate the teacher’s movements, I kept toppling over. So did the amateurs around me, including one man in a full business suit. It looked like a physical therapy session for victims of inner ear damage. The scene was almost too perfect a metaphor for the challenge facing cruise companies: They’re trying to offer what Chinese consumers want, but not everything translates on a boat.

Adaptation has always been key to the cruise industry’s survival. Shipping companies offered pleasure cruises as early as 1844, but most trans-Atlantic passenger ships during the 19th and early 20th centuries relied on immigrants from Europe to the U.S. for their business. When the U.S. tightened immigration laws after World War I, shipping lines were forced to hunt for new customers. Wealthy American tourists eagerly filled the gap, especially after the 18th Amendment banned alcohol in 1920. (One French company emphasized booze in its brochure: “As you sail away, far beyond the range of amendments and thou-shalt-nots, those dear little iced things begin to appear, sparkling aloft on their slender crystal stems … Oh so gurglingly good!”) The advent of air travel in the 1950s disrupted the passenger shipping industry once again, prompting companies to pitch luxury cruises to middle-class Americans rather than just the upper crust. With a boost from the postwar economy, the mass-market cruise industry took off and has thrived ever since, with a current global annual growth rate of 7 percent.

Costa first approached Chinese officials about running cruises out of Shanghai in 2005. The government was initially suspicious, said Massimo Brancaleoni, then vice president for Costa’s Asia operations. They were concerned that Costa wanted to run overnight gambling boats like the kind that set sail out of Hong Kong. After Brancaleoni and his colleagues explained the concept of a cruise—good food, entertainment, a family-friendly environment—they became more amenable.

China’s laws weren’t written with passenger liners in mind; they’re geared to accommodating cargo ships. New rules had to be negotiated allowing vessels to be restocked in port without goods being taxed. (The Atlantica serves food from all over the world, including Thai rice, German jam, Greek orange juice, Korean strawberries, and lentils from the United Arab Emirates.) Nor were Shanghai’s facilities up to international standards. Many cruise ships were too tall to pass under the bridge that separates the city’s primary port from the ocean, so the biggest vessels couldn’t call until the Wusongkou port was built.

In 2014, Carnival’s chief operating officer, Alan Buckelew, relocated from Miami to Shanghai. I met him at the Costa offices there. “It reminds me of my youth,” he said, when I asked about the China market now. “Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, cruising in the U.S. had many of the same characteristics as China today.” It was regionalized, with cruise lines typically based in one home port. Fly cruising—taking a plane to a boat, often as a package deal—hadn’t become popular. Cruises were also shorter, before repeat cruisers and retirees sought out longer voyages. In China, many last only three or four days, to accommodate the country’s shorter holidays.

Carnival and Royal Caribbean have always jockeyed for market space (Carnival was once dubbed “Carnivore” for its many acquisitions), and China is no exception. Each company has mobilized some of its biggest weapons—the megaships Quantum and Ovation for Royal Caribbean, the around-the-world cruise and the Costa Serena for Carnival—and hastened to flatter its new crush. “No civilization in the world has a longer history than China,” Royal Caribbean CEO Michael Bayley said at a press conference in Beijing in March. “We look forward to being a small part of that tremendous history for a long time to come.” The market is so fresh that it’s not yet a zero-sum game. “We hope they’re wildly successful,” Buckelew said when I asked about competition from Royal Caribbean. “Then we’ll be wildly successful.” For now, that means brand differentiation. Costa emphasizes its Italian heritage; Princess pitches itself as a quieter experience aimed at self-improvement; and Royal Caribbean hypes its gee-whiz facilities, including climbing walls and sky diving simulators. (Its slogan, in its entirety, is “WOW.”) Of course, what works in other parts of the world doesn’t always work in China.

Lunch was a madhouse. The ship had two separate buffet areas, both jammed. Lines wound around corners, guests squeezed past one another with cups balanced on plates, and the ill-timed lurches of the ship turned brushes into collisions. For all the complaints I heard about there not being enough Chinese food, it seemed plentiful to me—steamed buns, stir-fried noodles, fried rice, porridge—though it skewed toward sweet southeastern cooking rather than inland spice. Many guests ventured beyond local dishes; the line for burgers was just as long as the noodle bar’s. Striving for cultural synthesis, they served bubble tea in kiwi, original, and watermelon flavors—the colors of the Italian flag.

Civitella, the hotel director, gave me a tour of the kitchen. He wore a jolly smile and gleaming black shoes. On China cruises, he explained, lunch is the busiest meal. “Compared with European guests, the Chinese eat very early,” he said. They also eat faster—which means the kitchen has to move twice as quickly—and order far less booze. Back when he first came to China with Costa in 2010, he said, groups would order a single cocktail, passing it around for each person to take a sip and a photo.

Since then, he’s seen behaviors change. Guests are drinking more wine, using chopsticks less, and becoming more receptive to Italian food. Still, during sit-down dinners, about 60 percent of guests will choose the Asian option over the Italian. (Taiwanese guests prefer Italian food, Civitella said, for “political” reasons.) The kitchen has adjusted by hiring a dozen Chinese cooks and one chef from Shanghai. The VIP “Chef’s Table” meal, where cooks prepare food in front of guests, was especially popular. “As you know, Chinese guests are very proud,” Civitella said. “They like to show they are important.”

This idea—that Chinese travelers want more class distinctions rather than fewer—became a refrain. When I first met Li, the architect who disdained bread, we were on a shore excursion in Japan. He was griping that as a top-paying guest, he should have a better seat on the bus. “Money buys good service,” he told me. He’d worked hard and wanted to feel like his earnings were well spent. One day by the pool, I met Frankie Wu, a young father and analyst in the luxury industry in Hong Kong, who had a similar criticism. “They’re treating everyone the same,” he said. Ticket prices ranged from $1,162—about a third of the average Chinese person’s annual disposable income—to $6,456. “People here are from very different backgrounds. They should be treated with more prestige.”

After the rigidly stratified liners of the early 20th century—think Jack and Rose in Titanic—cruising in the last few decades has become a socially flattening activity. Despite all the talk of pampering and royal treatment, cruises are largely about the democratization of luxury. Once aboard, everyone is equally regal. Yet Wu and Li wanted cruising to be more like the floating caste systems of yore. “Collective experience is a dirty word now,” Wu said. Chinese people with money “want to be treated differently, just because they earn a tiny bit more than the people living next door.”

If conspicuous consumption was the goal, opportunities abounded. The mezzanine above Dolce Vita Hall was lined with luxury shops, including Gucci, Omega, and Longines—a renovation made last year especially for the China market. Walking to the theater for the nightly show, guests had to traverse a long, sparkling hall of duty-free stores. The sales pitch continued inside. Before that night’s stage act, there was a 15-minute “shopping fashion show” in which performers modeled various available-for-purchase items. It began with a man and woman slinking out like runway models. He put a ring on her finger, and they held the pose, letting the diamond glint in the light. It would have been a perfect piece of salesmanship if it weren’t for the soundtrack, Kanye West’s Diamonds From Sierra Leone.

Next stop was the ground zero of wealth-display rituals, the casino. I realized why I’d been dancing alone the night before: Everyone was here. There were 14 tables for gambling and dozens of slot machines with themes such as “Golden Monkey,” “Asian Princess,” and “Silk Road Zorro.” Almost every table was full, and judging by the number of onlookers, the main events were baccarat and a game called Sic Bo, also known as “big and small.” Both are special to Costa’s Asian cruises.

Presiding over the scene was a well-coiffed Australian named Nathan O’Brien, who explained the rules of Sic Bo. He pointed to a covered popping mechanism containing three dice—sic bo means “precious dice” in Cantonese—and then to an electronic board that logged the last 10 or so rolls. The croupier would pop the hidden dice, and players would bet on what they showed—a “big” total (11-17), a “small” total (4-10), odd, even, double, triple, or some other condition—based on what had been rolled recently. “Because?of course there’s a relationship,” I said. “You got it,” O’Brien said with a smile.

One player, Shun Chunhong, a restaurant owner from Beijing with a wispy beard that nearly reached his chest, told me his strategy. It wasn’t about luck, he said. It was about waiting for a pattern to emerge. After a streak of three smalls in a row, he put down a $25 chip on small. The dice popped, and the result came up: big. The chip disappeared. Still, Shun had faith in his method. “I’m an extremely controlled person,” he assured me.

Over at baccarat, a group of middle-aged men and one woman sat glued to their chairs, nursing thermoses of hot water. One of them, a combed-over gentleman from Hangzhou, was maintaining a steady sheen of sweat. Any time a crucial card was dealt, he’d lift the corner with painstaking slowness, as if peeling a decal off the table, and peer into the widening gap while screaming. I watched some players bet $500, $1,000, $2,000—more than some people had paid to get on the ship in the first place—on almost every hand. The highest rollers of all disappeared behind a partition into a private playing area, leaving the rest of us to only imagine the quantities being wagered.

We were off the boat now, back on land, familiar in that it was firm, unfamiliar in that it was Fukuoka, a port city in southern Japan. We passed through customs and piled onto a bus, where a local guide named Duan Fei took over. “How many people have been to Japan?” she asked. No hands went up. Yet everyone was happy to share their Japan expertise. “The food portions are so small, it doesn’t fill you up,” said Zhao Yang, an employee at an industrial technology company in Yunnan province who was traveling with his mother. As we drove past some traditional-looking houses, a cantankerous executive sitting next to me, Qian Qi, noted their debt to Chinese architecture. “Tang Dynasty culture had a big influence on Japan,” he said. Li, the architect, jokingly imitated a Japanese person by bowing low, then pretending to smack his interlocutor across the face.

In an industry where many things can and do go wrong—collisions, fires, norovirus outbreaks—shore excursions outside China pose a distinct risk. Chinese who want to emigrate but can’t get a proper visa sometimes just disappear from a tour group. Passengers who arrange their own visas have to pay a deposit of up to 100,000 yuan, or $16,000, according to our tour organizer, Yi Hua. If a guest boards with suspiciously light bags, Costa reports him to the authorities as a possible flight risk. At the height of the tense standoff over the Diaoyu Islands in 2012, a Chinese guest on a Costa ship docking in Fukuoka unfurled a provocative banner, prompting Japanese police to board. Factor in the language barrier, and a Chinese tour group in Japan is an international incident waiting to happen. When we stopped at the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, one Chinese cruiser loudly explained to me why the Americans were heroes to drop the nuke.

Everyone from Costa to the local guides to the cruisers themselves went out of their way to preserve harmonious relations. When first boarding the ship, guests passed underneath an LED board that read in English, “Civilized Behaviors, Enjoyable Trips.” Pasted to the window nearby was a poster listing seven unwelcome behaviors, including cutting in line, spitting on the ground, carving into trees or cultural relics, and removing one’s shirt in public. Our guide in Japan, Duan, reminded us not to litter. She even warned us to mind our valuables in crowded places, not because of local thieves—Japan is notoriously safe—but because “there will be a lot of Chinese people around.” My traveling companions, mindful of stereotypes about Chinese travelers, behaved respectfully. Some adapted especially well to local culture, like the young couple that bought a shrinkwrapped multimedia set of Japanese pornography and passed the DVDs around the bus for appraisal.

After stopping at a hot spring and a Japanese barbecue, our group got down to the real business of the day: shopping. The bus pulled into the parking lot of a pharmacy called DrugOn, and everyone grabbed a basket. I noticed Li beelining for the health checkup station. There were two tiers: basic, for about $250, and premium, for $1,000. He signed up for the latter and disappeared into a back room.

Later, I saw a pair of employees sitting with Li on a bench. Preliminary blood test results indicated he was sick. Li knew, he told them. He’d recently been diagnosed with cancer in his stomach and colon. He just wanted a second opinion—a Japanese one. Now I understood why, of his many family members, Li had chosen for a traveling companion the one who was a medical student.

Like the cruise companies, DrugOn has geared its services to China’s tourist economy. Product sections were labeled in Mandarin, and about half the employees I saw were Chinese. One attendant, a student from Ningbo named Xia Zhishui, said a large portion of their clients are Chinese travel groups. “Right now, everyone likes ‘Made in Japan,’?” he said. “They think the medicine in China isn’t safe.” Japan also approves some medicines for over-the-counter sale that are unavailable or require a prescription in China. My Atlantica shipmates packed their baskets with everything from moisturizer to forehead-cooling pads to a ginger-based hangover cure.

We spent the rest of the day—indeed, the next several days—hopping from one duty-free store to another. They all blended together, as if they were really one big store connected by wormholes. They were uniform in style, lit like the solar core, and overcrowded, as if designed to wear down one’s defenses. “My head hurts,” said Qian, the executive, as we walked into the umpteenth outlet of the trip. A few minutes later he was buying a Panasonic shaver. The products had a consistency, too. In addition to the inevitable fancy watches and cosmetics and jewelry, there was a wide selection of organic health pills, thermoses, and rice cookers. Li bought all three.

After this eternity of aisle-browsing, it was becoming clear that shopping was, for many people, a highlight of the cruise. Toward the end of our day in Fukuoka, Duan called for a vote on whether to keep shopping or return to the ship. The vote was nearly unanimous. “One usual complaint we see is there’s not enough time for shopping,” said Buhdy Bok, Costa’s senior vice president for Pacific Asia and China.

Inconceivable as this seemed to a mall-phobe like me, it made sense for many Chinese guests. Whereas the typical American cruiser’s ambitions peak at stress-testing the all-you-can-eat buffet, Chinese travelers see cruises as an opportunity for self-improvement. “Chinese guests want to explore,” said Cherry Wang, country director for Princess Cruises in China. “They want to raise their level of life.” That may mean seeing new places, learning new skills, or improving their economic situation. Wang said this has to do with the fast pace of China’s growth, as many now-middle-class consumers still remember extreme hardship. “Many people think, ‘I have a lot of power now, but if I relax and enjoy my life, then in a year or two I won’t be able to catch up.’?

This also helped explain the endless activities aboard the ship. Most Chinese guests didn’t want to veg out and read a book; they could do that at home. On the cruise, they wanted to be engaged. (The word many people used was tiyan, or “learn through experience.”) Some of those experiences were a bit too foreign: The Fellini film series didn’t go over well, so Costa replaced it on some trips with Chinese movies such as House of Flying Daggers. Others weren’t foreign enough: The Atlantica used to have a spa but removed it because it was so unpopular in China. “You have to find time to do the spa,” Bok said, and most Chinese cruises are short. Plus, for a culture that has been getting rubdowns for millennia, there is nothing novel or exotic about a spa.

Not everyone I spoke with favored the cram-it-all-in style of travel. Young guests, especially, said the shore excursions were too much, too fast. Zhu Hai Bin, a 34-year-old man with a stylish topknot, said he felt rushed for no reason. “If you go to a customer-oriented country like Japan, you want the experience to be customer-oriented,” he said. He’d have preferred to wander around with his wife, apart from a tour group. Next time, he said, he’d skip the cruise and “travel freely.”

The last night of the cruise, I slipped into the theater for the Blue Velvet burlesque show. It was packed. No one had been talking about going, but suddenly everyone was there. During a rendition of Crazy in Love featuring female police strippers and a white man rapping, I noticed two couples from our tour group in front of me, cuddling. As a group of dancers shed their white fedoras and long coats to a song whose dominant lyric was “Spank me,” I saw Li and his grandniece looking patiently engaged, as if absorbing a TED Talk. At the curtain call, the audience was, as before, almost silent. “It was a clash of civilizations,” said Wu, the luxury industry expert, after the show. Then again, that was the point.

By the time we woke up the next morning, the ship was approaching Shanghai. We had a couple of hours before disembarking, but the onboard activities were shut down, so passengers draped themselves over whatever seats were available, forcing passersby to navigate around mountains of shopping bags. Despite the gripes about the lack of Chinese food and the rushed shore excursions and the insufficient economic stratification, most people seemed pleased. I felt exhausted. Between the gorging and spectating and duty-freeing and remaining vigilant for international incidents, the last six days had been anything but relaxing. It made me want to take another cruise just to recover. But I wasn’t the target audience. Most people I asked said they would consider cruising again.

I wanted to have one last conversation with Li. When I knocked on the door to his cabin, he invited me in. He poured white tea, which he drank from his new thermos, and offered me a cigarette, a high-end brand from Wuhan called Yellow Crane Tower. (If Li was going to smoke despite cancer, he certainly didn’t care about Costa’s in-room ban.) When I asked about the burlesque, he said he was used to that kind of thing. “I’ve been to the Moulin Rouge,” he said. “It’s very classy. Much better than Chinese smut.”

Li talked about his childhood. Growing up in rural Shaanxi province, he said, “my family had no food.” He remembered eating tree bark and grinding up corncobs so his family could eat the powder. Despite the extreme deprivation, he was a loyal Communist. “Everyone worshipped Mao like a god,” he said. In 1969 he met a student of Liang Sicheng, who’s known as the father of modern Chinese architecture, and became his apprentice. Ignoring the prevailing Cultural Revolution ethos of “Destroy the old world, establish a new world,” Li soon became fascinated with traditional Chinese architecture. He later established a design firm dedicated to constructing old-style buildings, which flourished. He now makes millions of dollars a year, he said.

I asked how he reconciled his early faith in Mao with his penchant for VIP vacations. “There must be class divisions,” he said. “If there’s no stratification, there’s no motivation to work hard.” What about the notion that everyone should be equal? “That’s just an idea,” he said. “Communism is a great idea, just like the religions in your country: Catholicism, the Virgin Mary, heaven. What is heaven? Have you been?”

In recent years, President Xi Jinping has talked about “the Chinese dream.” Li said he sees a connection with cruising. “What’s the Chinese dream? It’s to get what you deserve through hard work,” he said. “What’s the reward you deserve? Enjoyment.” At this point, he was just trying to enjoy himself. He lit another Yellow Crane Tower. “Worrying does no good. If you’re afraid of death, you can’t live.”

His grandniece, Lin, had been quiet the entire trip. When I asked her later what she thought of the experience, she sent back an effusive note. “It was so romantic,” she wrote. “The boat felt like an exotic country, a place of rare calm. … Participating in the activities, no one knowing anyone else but still having fun. … ?Or occasionally sitting alone in the cafe, listening to music. It was a pleasure. I hope I can go again.”

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About Michael L. Grace