It is easy to forget that the cruise industry was not always the global, or even national business that it is today.
In the early period of modern cruising, the airlines were still regulated and selling cruises was mostly a drive-port business. I was reminded of that in talking with Carnival Corp. COO Alan Buckelew, who began his career in the 1970s at Sitmar.
Buckelew’s latest assignment takes him to China, where he will function as Carnival’s point person in that key emerging market. Buckelew said China in many ways reminds him of the cruise market in North America back in its infancy.
In the mid-1970s, Buckelew recalls, each part of the U.S. had its own cruise players.
“There were a couple of brands in Miami, one or two in New York, one in L.A., and they pretty much kept to their own neighborhoods — the Miami guys in the Caribbean, New York in the Caribbean as well, the L.A. guys in Alaska and Mexico.”
With the deregulation of airlines in 1979, flying became more affordable.
“As cruise lines began to create an air package program and began flying, more ships came into the business, and it became more of a national business rather than a regional business,” he said. “And now it’s a global business.”
As it played out, the regional cruise lines consolidated in Miami. Princess Cruises, which merged with Sitmar, and Holland America Line became part of Carnival Corp. As did Cunard Line. Another big player in the New York market, Celebrity Cruises, became part of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Now the competitive arena has shifted to China, where, Buckelew says, “we’re back in the 1970s.”
“It’s still pretty regional, not that many guests flying to the ships,” he said. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tianjin all draw passengers from their own geographic areas.
One big difference, however, is the scale. China’s population is four times that of the U.S. There are 24 million people in greater Shanghai alone. “When I go back home to L.A. or Miami, they seem like little villages in contrast to Shanghai,” Buckelew said.