Take a 2,000-or-so passenger Italian cruise liner, base it out of Singapore and staff it with Asians. This is exactly what Costa have done with their ship, the Costa Victoria, and in doing so they are catering to an entirely new market — the biggest one in the world.
Cruises are not new to Southeast Asia. For decades oversized boats from around the globe have called at the region’s biggest ports. But what is new is the clientele. In the past it was almost exclusively older Europeans, North Americans and Australians making ports of call in this region.
But with greater spending power, Asians are now joining in the fun. On the cruise I took over New Year’s, the make-up of the passengers was almost exclusively Asian. But more interesting was the age-range. It wasn’t just older people. Here everyone was holidaying with their families.
My cruise was a media trip — altogether there were 19 of us from Vietnam on the jaunt. We also came with our families. The deal was simple. We pay for our flights to Singapore, the place where we would both embark and disembark. Costa would do the rest.
It didn’t quite work out like that — everything was put together so quickly that there was a distinct lack of organisation. But there were so many highlights to our cruise, which called at Phuket, Langkawi and Penang before returning to Singapore, that our five days aboard this kitsch yet luxury 18-year-old liner was one to remember. Even the constant repetition of Jingle Bells and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer over the sound system, Costa’s homage to Christmas, embedded itself firmly in the experience. We wondered if after New Year’s Eve they would change the mix tape. To our amusement, they didn’t.
One of the best memories was the day in Phuket — we landed just off the coast from Patong Beach. I expected our eight hours onshore to bring me face to face with everything I dislike about holidaymaking in Thailand. It did.
Patong is Thailand’s answer to Bali’s Kuta. Same concept, different countries — except the loud tourists here are Russians.
Yet with so little time to explore, there was a sense of adventure to our wonderings around the town, and our people-watching on the municipal beach. For a day, this place was perfect.
The next morning we woke at sunrise to the sweeping island views of Langkawi. The weather that day was the best of our trip. With the clear blue sky above, the tropical land and seascape was out of a postcard. From the rainy, overcast weather that blighted the first day of the cruise, the journey was coming alive.
On New Year’s Day we docked at Georgetown, Penang. Few cities in Southeast Asia can match this former colonial outpost for its architecture, multi-cultural variety and street food. Returning here for the first time in 15 years, I was so entranced that I walked 20km back and forth across the city centre. After so much buffet food on the ship, I needed the exercise.
The crowning moment, though, was the night before — New Year’s Eve. When you don’t really know the people you’re spending time with, this night of celebration can act as the perfect occasion to build friendships and break barriers; we went wild. Even the kids with us joined in the celebrations, swapping coke for beer in their improvised drinking games.
Led by Costa’s entertainment staff, as 11.59 clicked into midnight, the ship erupted. Everyone — Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Vietnamese — broke into song and dance. Hugs with friends, hugs with strangers, champagne, dancing, singing, more hugs, more champagne. For a short moment all inhibitions were put aside.
It was electric.