Mitsui O.S.K. Passenger Line, which currently operates Nippon Maru, will add Seabourn Odyssey in August 2024 and hopes to introduce the first of two 600-passenger newbuilds in 2027.
Specifications for the pair of 36,000gt vessels of under 200 meters/656 feet LOA are nearly complete and the company will soon invite shipyards to tender for the order, said Naohiko Yamaguchi, senior staff officer, MOL.
Seatrade meetings, new cruise-related divisions
Yamaguchi, together with Mitsui O.S.K. Passenger Line President Yusuke Ueno and Director Fumitaka Koide and MOL Senior Executive Advisor Tony Kaufman, were at Seatrade Cruise Global last week to meet with shipyards and suppliers.
Just after, on April 1, MOL launched its Well-being & Lifestyle Business, encompassing cruise and ferry operations, and a new Cruise Business Innovation Project Unit, both in Tokyo, to develop and lead the expansion.
Japanese cruise market growth
In pre-pandemic 2019, the Japanese source market reached 296,000, an 11.4% increase, according to Cruise Lines International Association’s 2019 Asia Market Report. This put Japan fourth in Asia, following mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore and India, which overtook Japan in the No. 3 slot.
With cruise numbers climbing for several years pre-pandemic and the desire to diversify beyond its cargo business — which spans dry cargo, LNG carriers, ro-ros, oil tankers and container ships — MOL had decided the time was right to further invest in cruising. The pandemic slightly delayed plans, so the company first announced its intent to build last November.
Meanwhile, MOL was looking for opportunities to acquire a high-quality vessel and nailed the surprise acquisition of Seabourn Odyssey last month. This means the company will be able to field two upscale ships in the years before the newbuilds come online.
The 1990-built Nippon Maru, 22,472gt with capacity for 532 passengers, has been well kept up with its last major refurbishment in February 2020. The 2009-built Seabourn Odyssey, 32,477gt with capacity for 458 passengers, will fit in nicely.
‘Size-wise, the ship is perfect,’ said Yamaguchi, who also extolled its large accommodations (all are balcony suites), big decks and ample public spaces.
Adding Seabourn Odyssey, to be renamed following a refurbishment, will enable the company to branch out internationally with both itineraries and customer sourcing. Currently Nippon Maru mainly operates domestic cruises with occasional international voyages.
Ueno said having two ships gives the flexibility to explore more of Asia and beyond, including world cruises.
Over time, Mitsui O.S.K. Passenger Lines will establish a more international customer base, Kaufman said, noting: What better way to explore Japan than on a Japanese line with its deep knowledge and experience of the region, cultural understanding and authenticity?
There’s potential for tapping into Japan’s 30m inbound tourists a year, especially from countries including China, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, the US and Canada.
Nippon Maru is crewed by Japanese and Filipinos, so English is spoken onboard. Already Japanese and Western cuisines are served. The intent is to offer Japanese-style cruises with English as the second language and printed materials available in English. With research showing travelers are increasingly interested in wellness and sustainability, MOL’s new passenger division will focus on these areas.
Seabourn Odyssey reflagging?
A new name for Seabourn Odyssey is to be announced this summer, with details about the vessel’s refurbishment to follow. Yamaguchi said a minimal amount of work is needed, however the ship will be going into dry dock.
He added the company hasn’t decided whether to reflag Odyssey from the Bahamas to Japan. Reflagging would allow full domestic itineraries, an advantage.
As for the newbuilds, a range of yards will be invited to tender, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which built Nippon Maru. It is hoped an agreement will be reached by autumn. Last November, MOL said it envisioned a price of approximately ¥100b ($717m) for the pair.
A dual-fuel configuration, enabling LNG, is desired, however MOL is keeping its options open.
Kaufman, who recently joined in a senior advisory role, had interacted with Yamaguchi many times when Kaufman held key posts at Carnival Corp. & plc, Holland America Group and Princess Cruises that involved developing Japan’s inbound and outbound markets.
‘I’m very happy to be part of the MOL Group,’ he said. ‘I look forward to working together with them to share the great product they offer’ to a wider market.