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Beer, spirits and wine companies may have to wait for the next generation of Chinese cruise ships, in order to take advantage of the booming channel, a leading cruise-ship executive has told just-drinks.

Asia will be the second-biggest region for cruises by 2020, industry figures show, cementing cruise ship consumption as one of the biggest opportunities for Global Travel Retail. However, the core Chinese consumer is not yet interested in buying alcohol in onboard bars or stores, according to Jared Lee, Costa Cruise's VP for product management & guest services in Asia-Pacific.

Cruise ships operating in Asia are still Western-centric, Lee argued, and do not cater to Chinese preferences. The ships mainly feature open-plan bars favoured by Western customers instead of smaller rooms for entertaining privately. However, Lee said the coming wave of Chinese cruise ships currently under construction could help motivate alcohol purchases.

"The bar consumption in China is not yet at the levels of Western countries," Lee said. "We see there is potential. I foresee that Chinese consumers' tastes will evolve over time, so it is never static."

According to Lee, the new ships could offer different beverages to Western-style bars, including non-alcoholic soft drinks such as bubble tea.

"That's what we will be offering, if that's what they want," he said.

Lee was speaking on the sidelines of this week's TFWA China's Century Conference, held in Guangzhou, which heard that Asia increased its global share of the cruise ship market by 33% last year, according to Cruise Lines International Association figures. Asia now accounts for 9% of cruise ship capacity, in fourth place behind leader the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Europe excluding the Mediterranean.

Presenting the figures, Mike Feely, VP of research agency Horizon Consumer Science, said that if Asia maintains its growth trajectory, it will overtake the Mediterranean to become the number two destination for cruises in the next three years.

Feely, who spent two weeks onboard a Chinese cruise ship as part of a research project for TFWA, agreed with Lee that the new-build cruise ships could boost alcohol sales. However, alcohol consumption on the ship he was on was weak.

"There were a lot of kids around, a lot of multi-generational families," he told just-drinks. "You're not going to have people drinking much."

Costa Cruise is part of the Carnival cruise-ship company, which controls almost half of the market. Carnival already has at least ten ships operating in China and has started building "China-centric" boats. Other operators, including Norwegian Cruise Line, are also building boats for Chinese consumers, some of which will carry about 4,000 passengers.

The Chinese already account for almost half of the Asian cruise market, with the number of Chinese travellers predicted by the country's Ministry of Tourism to increase from 1m in 2015 to 5.4m in 2020.

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