Star Cruises (麗星郵輪), the largest cruise line in the Asia-Pacific, said yesterday that it may consider withdrawing from the Taiwanese market if Taiwanese authorities deny its application to operate a direct cruise service between the northeastern port of Keelung and Xiamen, Fujian Province.
Star Cruises filed the application with the Keelung Harbor Bureau last month to serve the route, but the screening process has turned out to be a frustrating experience for the company, as government officials and the cruise line’s executives disagree over the nature of the service.
Ministry of Transportation and Communication officials said that regular cruises between Keelung and Xiamen would amount to marine passenger services, which only Taiwanese vessels or vessels owned by Taiwanese-Chinese joint ventures are allowed to operate under local regulations.
The Hong Kong-based Star Cruises said, however, that ordinary people are unlikely to use expensive cruises as “passenger services.”
Transportation officials have suggested that Star Cruises add another destination to the line to make the operations look more like a cruise than a ferry service.
Star Cruises has yet to decide whether the suggestion is acceptable, but sources at the company said an initial evaluation has shown that the proposed change would be much less attractive than the originally planned route.
The sources said that Star Cruises has already reduced its workforce in Taiwan by 70 percent amid the global economic downturn. The company was to close its operations in Taiwan early last year, but delayed the action after seeing a glimmer of hope in proposed cross-Taiwan Strait talks on direct shipping between Taiwan and China.
Star Cruises entered Taiwan’s maritime tourism market in 1997, sailing primarily between Keelung and Japan’s Okinawa. The cruise line stopped sailing this route in October 2005, but resumed the service in June 2007.
The company has been the major player in Taiwan’s cruise market, taking local tourists on cruises to the Japanese islands of Okinawa, Ishigaki and Yonaguri, Taiwan’s Penghu islands and Hong Kong. When the weather turns cold, its ships leave Taiwan to serve Star Cruises’ other Asian routes.
At the time when Star Cruises resumed homeporting in Keelung, Star Cruises’ Taiwan manager Andy Lew (盧冠群) openly indicated that from a long-term point of view, Star Cruises wanted to launch services from Taiwan to Shanghai and Xiamen — two of China’s port cities.
Taiwan and China reached agreements in November to lift a six-decade ban on direct sea and postal links between the two sides and expand air links.
Foreign cruise ships visiting Taiwan now no longer need to sail to a third territory, usually Hong Kong, before they can visit a Chinese port, or vice versa.
If Star Cruises terminates its operations in Taiwan, the port of Keelung will lose at least NT$7 million in harbor fees a year from its home port, and tourism-related businesses will lose revenues from tourists who dock at Keelung on 80 cruises between March and September every year.