Dickson Chin, Wallem Ship Agency’s Managing Director (pictured), offers an unique insight into the company’s role in supporting Asian cruising and explains how operators and local port authorities are preparing for the relaunch.
As Asia’s leading cruise ship agent, Wallem has contracts with 33 cruise lines, ranging from global corporations to the smallest niche players. The company is involved in world cruises calling at Asian ports, as they circumnavigate the globe, regional itineraries sailing exclusively in local waters and expedition cruises repositioning in Asia, as well as cruise-to-nowhere as a new addition, due to COVID-19.
With such an array of operators and itineraries to support, Wallem Ship Agency handles a wide variety of challenging and high-profile cases.
In my 14 years at Wallem, nothing has put our abilities to the test quite like the turnaround of RMS ‘Queen Mary 2’ at the Port of Hong Kong.
Before the $1bill investment in the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, Hong Kong lacked the infrastructure to accommodate such a large vessel beyond a 12-hour port stay, meaning that ‘Queen Mary 2’s’ turnaround day needed to take place at an anchorage. With 900 guests and their belongings to see safely ashore, the time pressure was significant.
To further complicate proceedings, luggage was also transferred on a passenger ferry, due to lack of equipment. The baggage was taken ashore and stored in a rented terminal, and we repeated the process in reverse for embarking guests. After 16 hours’ work in trying circumstances, we had ensured the safe and successful turnaround of Cunard Line’s famous flagship.
Not every case is as demanding as the ‘Queen Mary 2’ assignment, but there is always an emphasis on the human element. When Wallem provides agency services to a cruise ship, it is catering to the needs not of 20 to 30 crew members, as with a container vessel, but of hundreds of personnel along with hundreds if not thousands of guests.
Understandably, human-related problems arise far more frequently, and Wallem deals with everything from lost luggage and late arrivals to medical issues. As well as handling logistics in these situations, Wallem offers linguistic and moral support: the affected individual may be thousands of miles from home in a region where his or her language is not widely spoken. Our approach is to consider what level of service we would hope to receive were we in a similar predicament – and do everything in our power to meet those expectations.
While the human element will remain a key factor in cruise ship agency, digitalisation has the potential to make our jobs easier by standardising processes across local governments. For example, each port authority in Asia has its own way of filing documentation, and even something as apparently trivial as a passenger’s or crew member’s date of birth on a manifest can cause problems when date formats vary between countries.
With a consistent, digital template for all governments in the region, we could eliminate room for error. Although we have seen progress in this area recently, there is still a long way to go.
Asian port authorities’ current priority is the relaunch of the local cruise market. Wallem has been in discussions with several regional governments, advising them on how to prepare ports for reopening and bring passenger ships back to the area.
Leading the way is Singapore, which is positioning itself as a driving force behind the reactivation of cruising in Asia; and Japan, which continues to host cruise conferences by prefecture governments, and the recent online meeting held by Sakai Port included participation of South Korea and Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Wallem’s talks with operators have revealed a growing appetite for new destinations. Driven by Covid-related safety imperatives, cruise lines are seeking less crowded ports that nonetheless have much to offer to tourists.
A compelling example is Yeosu, South Korea, a port city that has dominated the domestic travel scene for five years but has been largely overlooked by international cruise itineraries. Yeosu represents an attractive alternative to the Port of Incheon, which serves Seoul without being particularly close to the capital’s centre. Expectations are high that the relatively small coastal city will feature heavily in future itinerary planning for Asian cruises.
Advising both governments seeking to attract cruise lines to their ports and cruise lines looking for new destinations to include in their itineraries, Wallem Ship Agency acts as an intermediary between the two parties.
As such, we anticipate some busy years ahead. Whether supporting the port authority and operator as they prepare for departure or the passenger whose luggage has not arrived on board the ship – it’s all in a day’s work for Asia’s leading cruise ship agent.