According to a report by Cruise Industry News, Chinese travel conglomerate HNA Group is eyeing the acquisition of an unnamed “major” cruise line. The rumors of HNA’s potential acquisition of a cruise line sent cruise line stocks soaring, including industry giants such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Carnival Corp. The potential move follows a busy last week for HNA Group, when it acquired a 16.79 percent stake in travel retail giant Dufry, as well as acquired a substantial stake in Rio de Janeiro’s Galeo airport. HNA Group previously had an unsuccessful foray into the cruise industry with the HNA Cruises brand and its MS Henna, which was sold for scrap in 2016. HNA cruise operations were suspended in 2015.
Even though HNA’s unsuccessful attempt to penetrate China’s domestic cruise market may be cause for skepticism about the rumored acquisition of an international cruise line, it wouldn’t be the first time HNA makes a substantial investment in a tourism industry giant. In October last year, HNA Group acquired a 25 percent stake in Hilton Worldwide for US$6.5 billion, only a few months after acquiring Carlson Hotels—owner of Radisson hotels. The company holds substantial investments in airlines, airports, airport services providers, duty-free operators, and even owns the third-largest stake in Deutsche Bank.
After withdrawing from China’s cruise market in 2015, it is currently left without a stake in China’s growing cruise market. According to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), China’s cruise industry grew at an annual compounded rate of 66 percent between 2012 and 2015, making it the fastest growing cruise tourism market in the world. Market leaders in the cruise industry have reacted accordingly, repurposing ships for the Chinese market, building new ships designed with the Chinese market in mind, as well as entering joint ventures with Chinese partners to boost growth and domestic ship construction in China. The Chinese government is also one of the biggest cruise industry stakeholders with various state-owned enterprises owning stakes in domestic cruise brands and shipbuilding plants. Among the major players in the market is a domestic cruise brand owned by Carnival Corp, state-owned China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), and China Investment Corporation.
For HNA Group, it wouldn’t be the first time it goes into a market where the Chinese state has significant interests. HNA Group’s Hainan Airlines is the largest privately-owned airline in China, trailing only state-owned Air China, China Eastern Airlines, and China Southern Airlines, and has enjoyed substantial growth as a result of the booming popularity of international tourism in China.
With the growth of cruise tourism outpacing overall tourism growth in China, buying a significant stake in one the Chinese cruise market’s many suitors could present an exciting prospect for HNA Group in its search for future growth through acquisition. With competition in the Chinese cruise market heating up, HNA Group and its strong foothold in China’s tourism industry could also present an ideal partner for cruise lines looking to China and Asia for future growth.