costa_allegra.jpgNext month, Italy-based Costa Cruises becomes the first large foreign operator to run cruises catering exclusively for China's domestic tourism market.

The 1,000-passenger Costa Allegra (pictured),will weigh anchor July 3 on the first of a series of 24 five-day cruises from Shanghai to Japan and Korea.

Carnival Corporation, the US owner of Costa Cruises and the world's biggest operator, has high hopes for its Chinese venture. Micky Arison, Carnival Corp's CEO, says:

Asia is a vastly under-served market and although these cruises on the Costa Allegra may be just a small step, if it proves as successful as we anticipate, this region could be the next great growth area for cruising.”

But the company is also entering unchartered waters in trying to sell cruises aimed specifically at Chinese vacationers.

Carnival's fleet of cruise brands includes legendary names like P&O and Cunard, but these brands are virtually unknown in China. Carnival has thus decided to use the Costa Cruises brand because its Italian CEO has extensive Asian experience and Costa's ships are used to catering for cruisers of different nationalities.

On the subject of catering: the Costa Allegra is being refurbished to appeal to the preferences of Chinese vacationers “but with a European flair”. That means features such as a “fusion” (Asian/Italian) restaurant, a sushi/noodles bar, an Italian restaurant and the obligatory shopping area.

Entertainment will be geared toward Asian tastes, as well. Presumably that means lots of karaoke..

Costa's Chinese venture comes at a time of growing interest from the western travel industry in the rising disposable incomes of China's middle classes.

According to Carnival, round 31m Chinese travelled abroad last year and that number is predicted to grow to 50m by 2010.

A report from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates that China will become the second largest tourism economy after the US by 2015.