LOS ANGELES -- Carnival will dispatch a fourth ship to China next April, escalating the battle for passengers in the fastest-growing cruise market.
The Miami-based cruise company, the world's largest, is transferring the 3,780-passenger Costa Serena to Shanghai from Europe to join three other company ships that travel to ports in Japan and South Korea, Alan Buckelew, Carnival's chief operating officer, said in a telephone interview.
"We're growing by leaps and bounds," Buckelew said. "It's a market that can support that kind of growth."
Carnival is squaring off against Royal Caribbean International, the No. 2 operator, which said last month its newest ship, the 4,180-guest Quantum of the Seas, will start sailing from Shanghai to Japan and Korea next May, after an inaugural season traveling from New Jersey to the Caribbean.
Cruise vacations are a relatively new travel option in China, with Carnival first entering the region in 2006. China is poised to become the world's second-largest market, after the U.S., by 2017, according to the World Travel Market and Euromonitor International.
Chinese cruise customers are typically younger than travelers from Europe and the U.S. with many 25-to-45-year-olds traveling with their children and parents, Buckelew said. The Chinese tend to have less vacation time, so itineraries focus on three- to five-day voyages, he said.
One reason the Chinese market is growing fast is that its younger customers are active in social media, Buckelew said.
"They're taking pictures of the meals they're eating, pushing them out to their friends," he said. "The cruise story is getting out a lot quicker."
The Sapphire Princess, Carnival's first premium-priced ship in the region, begins a four-month season in Shanghai on May 21. Customized touches for the market include Tai Chi classes and English-style afternoon tea.
Princess and Costa cruises are two of the 10 lines operated by Carnival.
The seven-year-old Costa Serena features a two-level spa with Turkish bath, a Grand Prix-racing simulator, water slide, casino and outdoor jogging track. Meals, entertainment and gift- shop items will be changed to reflect Chinese tastes, with a nod to well-known global labels.
"It's very luxury and brand-name oriented, particularly for the European and American brand names," Buckelew said.
Carnival has been trying to improve its image and reassure passengers after incidents in recent years including onboard illnesses, a fire on a Triumph cruise and the wreck of its Costa Concordia ship off the Italian coast in 2012. It has introduced a $25 million marketing campaign and made investments in ship safety and entertainment.