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China Will Restart International Cruises from Shanghai in June 2023

Last major cruise market to restart after the pandemic

China cruise restart
Blue Dream Star sailed on a test cruise and will restart passenger trips sailing to Japan in June from Shanghai (Blue Dream Cruises)

Published May 17, 2023 4:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

China’s international cruise market will reopen in June 2023 in a pilot program which will be the first phase in restoring the industry after the pandemic. China’s cruise market was largely suspended for three years with the government recently permitting the resumption of domestic cruises and according to media reports the plan for the next phase of the re-start was approved on May 15.

The first Chinese-owned cruise ships to restart international service will be the Blue Dream Star operated by Blue Dream Cruises and the China Merchants Yidun (47,800 gross tons) operated in a joint venture between Viking and China Merchants. The China Merchants’ ship has been sailing on the domestic cruises but for the Blue Dream Star, it will mark her entry into service. 

The General Office of the Ministry of Transport issued the "Plan for the Orderly Pilot Resumption of International Cruise Transport” at the end of March. It calls for the reopening of Shanghai and Shenzhen for cruises to international ports in the pilot program. Shanghai officials approved the plan this week. At a later date, the plan is to further ramp up the cruise restart.

Built in 2001 by Germany’s Blohm + Voss as the Olympia Explorer, the Blue Dream Star is a 24,782 gross ton cruise ship with accommodations for 1,275 passengers. She initially operated in Greece and was unique as she is one of the fastest modern cruise ships with a speed of up to 28 knots to facilitate Greek inter-island cruises. However, her owners Royal Olympia Cruises went bankrupt shortly after she entered service and the ship operated on charters before moving to China in 2016 as the Glory Sea. She was acquired by her current owners in 2020.

The Blue Dream Star recently arrived in Shanghai where the ship underwent a thorough safety inspection both to ensure the health routines as well as a port state inspection and safety drill. According to port officials, the safety drills were required because the cruise industry has not operated for three years and the new for new health protocols. After completing the safety inspections, the cruise ship departed without passengers on a trial voyage also required to certify before it can start revenue cruises. The Blue Dream Star departed Shanghai on May 16 sailing to Jeju Island, South Korea. She will return to port on May 18.

Cruises will begin on June 19 from Shanghai carrying passengers to Japanese ports. The company’s website shows the initial schedule lasting four months from June to September. The China Merchants Yidun is also due to start cruises to Japan in June. While there is no official word on when other cruise ships might be permitted to resume service, Chinese news outlet Caixin is reporting that CSSC Carnival, the joint venture between Carnival Corporation and CSSC, will start service in July sailing from Shanghai on a cruise visiting Okinawa, Japan.

The resumption of international cruises will be the first in 41 months. Shanghai suspended cruising on January 30, 2020, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In the week before the suspension, eight cruise ships docked in Shanghai carrying 30,595 passengers and more than 10,000 crew.

Shanghai government officials said the resumption of cruising is part of the city’s efforts to boot its economic recovery and to again make the cruise industry an “economic highlight” of the city. The departure of the Blue Dream Star on Tuesday was met with celebrations as the first international cruise in more than three years, but as a further precaution, the ship was also escorted out of the Yangtze estuary by two patrol boats.

China is following a similar model to the West in a slow ramp-up of the cruise industry and favoring its domestic cruise lines in the first stage of the process. Earlier this week, Royal Caribbean International announced its plans to become the first international cruise line to return a cruise ship to homeporting in China and operating for the domestic cruise market. The Spectrum of the Seas (169,379 gross tons) will reposition from Singapore to Shanghai in April 2024. 

Other Western cruise lines are expected to follow Royal Caribbean in restarting their programs from China. Also, by early 2024 CSSC Carnival will introduce China’s first large domestically built cruise ship sailing for a newly created brand Adora Cruises.