The cruise ship industry continues to gain in popularity, as operators offer exciting new destinations and new entertainment and dining experiences on board. According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which represents 95% of cruise capacity worldwide with 63 member cruise lines, around 28.5 million passengers went on cruises in 2018, a 7 percent increase over 2017.
The Caribbean remains the world’s most popular cruise destination, followed by the Mediterranean and the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese market remains an especially important one for MSC Cruises, the biggest privately owned cruise line. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, MSC Cruises has had an office here for the past 11 years and currently has about 50% of the market share for Japanese cruise passengers traveling to Europe (mainly the Mediterranean, where it is the leading cruise line).
The MSC fleet of 17 modern and innovative ships is one of the most environmentally-advanced in the industry. Sailing to more than 200 destinations across five continents, MSC is committed to environmental stewardship and works to minimize and continuously reduce the environmental impact of its fleet both while at sea and ashore by employing innovative marine and environmental technologies. Most recently, in December, its newly restored Ocean Cay Marine Reserve in the Bahamas received its first visitors when the MSC Divina visited the island.
Heading operations for MSC Cruises in Japan is Oliviero Morelli, an amiable Italian from Naples, who has been here for about six years. Besides his MSC duties, Morelli is president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce.
Japan Today visits him to hear more about the cruise business.
How is the cruise industry changed over the past six years?
The industry is in continuous evolution. Ships are more modern, with state-of-the art technology, bigger in terms of capacity and the industry is more ecologically-minded. In terms of destinations, there has been a shift in perception of cruises. Basically, the world has already been discovered. There are fewer undiscovered places. So what we are seeing is that passengers now look at the cruise ship itself as a destination. They say “I’m going for a cruise on the MSC Bellissima or the MSC Grandiose,” because whatever we put on board in terms of entertainment and experiences has to have the wow factor that attracts passengers because a lot of them are repeaters. Of course, whatever the itinerary, the basic requirements remain the same — relaxation, good food, and safe travel.
What can we expect from MSC Cruises?
MSC usually launches one ship per year but this year we launched two. One is the Grandiosa, which was launched in October. It can carry 6,300 passengers and 1,700 crew. It is a floating city. When a new ship comes out, it has to have something new, whether is cuisine by a renowned chef or an entertainment spectacle that will give passengers the “wow” factor.
We are the only cruise line in the world with an onboard performance of the Cirque du Soleil. We have a partnership with them and have created a theater for the ship, completely revolutionary, which holds about 400 people. The performers are specially trained ahead of the cruise for three months to adjust to the movement of the ship. It’s one of our greatest innovations and we now have passengers saying they want to go on a Cirque du Soleil cruise.
What are MSC’s strengths?
Being a privately owned cruise line means we can focus our strategies and capabilities on our brand and be a market leader. We are a family-owned company, so we never lose sight of the family experience. The children’s area on our ships are getting bigger. Nowadays, you can go on holiday with your kids and you don’t even need to see them during the day. They spend time in the various clubs. On our new bigger ships, there is a tracking app that lets you know where your kids are at all times.
How important is the Asian market?
Well, the Caribbean is still No. 1, then the Mediterranean, followed by Asia. China will always be the No. 1 source market but Japan is the biggest destination market for customers from Taiwan, China, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, who come to board our ships in Japan. Japan is a safe haven for cruise lines in Asia, while there has been a drop in other areas.
We see about 50% of our Japanese customers flying to Europe to board cruises there. Those guests tend to be a little bit more flexible, speak English and younger.
What about the reverse?
It is starting to become trend for Europeans to fly to Japan because it has an exotic image and used to be seen as inaccessible. Cruises make it accessible. The ratio at moment is 80% Japanese guests for cruises in Japan.
The Japanese government wants to increase tourism and cruise ships are important for this. Can Japanese ports handle the big ships?
Cruises are expected to bring 5 million tourists next year. Some ports are ready, some aren’t. Both the central and prefectural governments have been receptive to us. This has brought a series of private investments. For example, in the space of two weeks, MSC launched a ground-breaking ceremony at the port of Naha which is popular for Japanese, Chinese and South Korean cruise ship passengers. Two weeks later, we launched our second private port investment in Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi Prefecture). We have a huge commitment with the city. They will make many investments and in 2023 we will open our first terminal there. In Hokkaido, we already go to Muroran and Hakodate but the ports there need to be enlarge.
Our home port in Japan is Yokohama. The only constriction is height. Yokohama Bay Bridge and Rainbow Bridge are very low, so we have to moor outside. We were a pioneer for the Yokohama terminal. One area there was a parking lot two years ago. In the space of three months, they built a the Daikoku terminal as a freight area. Next year, Daikoku will become the port’s second cruise ship terminal.
One of the most important things we do is teach the prefectures what it means to be have cruise ports with world-class facilities. Japan probably has the highest number of ports in world, but mostly for cargo and fishing. However, if only one cruise line like MSC invests, fit’s a risk and growth will be slow. So the cities need to visit the major cruise fairs around the world and market themselves to the cruise lines…and they are starting to do this.
What MSC ships are coming to Japan next year?
The MSC Bellissima will be coming in April. It’s the other ship we launched last year and is only eight months old. It will have the Cirque du Soleil performance. Usually, our ships visit Kanazawa, Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Fukuoka, For Bellisima, we are going to Hiroshima and do something unusual for the cruise business which is an overnight stay so passengers can have the opportunity to go out and enjoy the food and night life, which is good for the local economy. Then we will have an overnight stay in Wakayama.
How do you market MSC Cruises in Japan?
Various ways. We have over 2.8 million worldwide passengers a year and they are great ambassadors for us. It’s not rare to organize a Japan Week. Last October, our sales team went on board a ship in the Mediterranean. They brought a sushi chef, ninja show, kimonos and for one week, all passengers could see the beauty of Japan.
In Japan, 99% of our reservations come from travel agents. That is unusual compared to other countries where it is the opposite. Being able to look at and feel colorful brochures is still important to Japanese. It is bound to change but not anytime soon. We do a lot of familiarization trips for media. In 2019, we had close to 10,000 people — journalists for lifestyle magazines, travel agents and local authorities visit our ships in Japan.
Do you have many Japanese staff on board?
When a ship is in Japan, we have around 100 Japanese-speaking staff on board. Half are MSC staff; the others are interpreters and work in reception and restaurants to help Japanese guests feel more comfortable. In November, our satisfaction rate reached a peak of 95% which is unprecedented.
What sort of feedback do you get from Japanese passengers in terms of service?
We get feedback 100% from on-board surveys. I read about15,000 comments last year. No nationality is as demanding but as rewarding as Japanese guests. Their expectations are totally different when it comes to guest service and food. I’ll give you an interesting example. We are proud of our Mediterranean heritage and our pasta is the best in the world. But for Japanese, pasta basically means only spaghetti. They want spaghetti, so we give it to them. Another time, I remember a guest complained about the taste of our pizza. Being Italian, that’s hard for me to read. One thing Japanese love seeing on the Bellissima is the mozzarella machine.
What is MSC Cruises doing in terms of environmental sustainability?
As of this month, MSC Cruises is the first global cruise line to be 100% carbon neutral. We will offset all direct carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from our fleet marine operations through a blend of carbon offset projects developed according to the highest standards by leading international entities that take immediate action on greenhouse gas emissions. All costs for the offsets as well as any other associated items will be covered directly and in full by our company.
MSC is also the first cruise line to create a nature reserve — Ocean Cay in the Bahamas. We took an island with nothing and spent five years restoring the biosphere and adding it as a tour destination. Now it is back to a paradise. There are for facilities for guests to enjoy the beach and a chance to see wildlife without disturbing the environment.
Tell us about your team here.
We have 25 staff but we will expand to about 30 in 2020. They are mainly in marketing and customer service after cruises. Follow-up is important for us.
And you’ve been here for six years?
I guess I am held captive in Japan. I cannot leave as long as we do so well. But I couldn’t be happier. My staff is like a family.
You must be super busy when a ship is in Japan?
When ships visit Japan, I go on 5-10 cruises — hop on, hop off at various ports. My family loves to come to Japan from Italy and stay on cruise. I work all day and they see me at night.
How do you like to relax?
My work is kind of my hobby. I like to eat and drink, so I have started to go to the gym.
Any recommendations for Italian or other restaurants in Tokyo?
Best pizza: Peppe Napolistaca
Best group outing: Elio Locanda Italiana
Best date spot: Ristorante da Nino
Best place to sign a business deal: Bulgari restaurant
Best catering & events: da GIORGIO
Best new Japanese sensation: Wagyumafia
For more information on MSC Cruises, visit www.msccruises.jp
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