Carnival Corp., the No. 1 cruise company, will become the first global cruise operator to have four ships based in China when it deploys its Costa Serena to Shanghai in April.
The race for China underscores the growing strength of the leisure and travel industries in the world's No. 2 economy as authorities try to spur domestic spending rather than trade and investment as an engine of growth.
Executives are confident about China's prospects even as its economy struggles with a prolonged slowdown from double digit rates of expansion, saying that growth is still strong when compared with developed markets.
Miami-based Carnival expects to carry 500,000 Chinese cruise passengers in 2015, up from 350,000 this year.
"We know that's just a drop in the bucket to what lies ahead in terms of the market in China, which we believe is going to someday represent more than half of all the cruise guests," Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said in a phone interview.
The Asian Cruise Association estimated last year that the overall Asian market, which totaled 1.3 million passengers in 2012, could nearly triple to 3.8 million in 2020, including 1.6 million from China.
Carnival is even more optimistic, predicting the number will grow to 7 million by 2020 or about a fifth of the global market.
"For the next five to 10 years, greater China including Hong Kong will play a critical role to the global cruise industry's development," said Zinan Liu, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s managing director for China.
While the U.S. and European are showing signs of revival, "there's no region like China and Asia that will grow as rapidly," he said.
Liu said Royal Caribbean expects to carry 400,000 Chinese cruise passengers in 2015, double the number from last year, from four main ports — Shanghai, Hong Kong, Xiamen and Tianjin.
The company's 18-deck Quantum of the Seas, which carries 4,180-passengers, arrives in Shanghai in May next year, joining two other Royal Caribbean ships based in China. It's also expanding operations in Hong Kong to better market to customers in neighboring Guangdong, the richest province in mainland China, Liu said.
For Carnival, the addition of the Costa Serena will raise its China capacity by 3,780 passengers. The company has two other Costa brand vessels stationed in Shanghai as well as one with its Princess brand.
While companies are salivating over the growth potential of China's newly wealthy middle class, hurdles remain.
One factor complicating efforts to pitch cruises to mainland Chinese is that "the vast majority of the population have no concept of a cruise," said Donald, Carnival's CEO.