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Full steam ahead for Asia’s cruise industry

Guess who's the growth driver of Asia's cruise market?

Following years of double-digit growth, Asia's cruise industry is set for a "record-breaking year" in 2015, thanks to booming demand from Chinese holidaymakers, a new report shows.

The number of Asians taking cruise trips has grown at a compound annual rate of 34 percent since 2012, reaching 1.4 million last year, according to research by Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) released Wednesday. Growth was fueled by a 79 percent jump per year in the number of Chinese travelers over that period.

"The Chinese love cruises and the market's growth rate is the fastest in the world… yet that is only a drop in the bucket in terms of total Chinese outbound travel, so we see much more potential," Adam Goldstein, chairman of the Cruise Lines International Association and also the president of Royal Caribbean, told CNBC Asia's "Squawk Box."

"2015 will be a record-breaking year in Asia, with more travelers cruising the region than ever," he added.

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In 2014, 697,000 Asian cruise travelers hailed from the world's second-biggest economy, nearly equaling the combined number of tourists from other regional markets. This has caught the attention of global cruise operators who are eager to grab a slice of the booming Chinese market, which could balloon to nearly $10 billion in cruise package sales by 2018 from around $6.8 billion in 2013, according to data from Euromonitor.

For one, the world's largest cruise operator Carnival Group relocated its chief operating officer to Shanghai from Miami last September and is beefing up capacity by adding a third Costa-branded ship in China this year. It also tweaked its offerings on board, in terms of language and food, and was in talks with state-owned companies like China Merchants Group to venture into the building of cruise ports and ships.

"China will overtake the U.S. and Europe at some point to be the largest cruising market in the world, so we are really excited to be here," Arnold Donald, president & CEO of Carnival, told CNBC last month.

Amid the attention, it's not surprising that the region's passenger capacity grew at a compound annual rate of 20 percent, making Asia the fourth biggest market behind the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Europe. This year, Asia's total capacity will likely hit almost 2.2 million, CLIA's report noted.

The international luxury liner Costa Romantica arrives at the Tianjin International Cruise Homeport in China.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

Cruising trends

The study also challenged perceptions of cruise trips being the least preferred type of vacation among younger leisure seekers.

4 in 10 Asians who opt for a holiday at sea are below the age of 40, much lower than the global average of 49 years old, according to CLIA. While the notion that cruises appeal more to the older crowd remains prevalent in developed markets like the U.S., it's nearly non-existent in Asia where cruises represent a new concept of traveling.

"Why we are seeing more young passengers is because [Asia] has little understanding of a cruise trip, which means no misconceptions that may prevent them from cruising," CLIA's Goldstein said. "So [the talk about cruises being boring and uncool] isn't what you'll hear in Asia, especially China."

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Another trend that CLIA highlighted was a preference for shorter holidays among Asians, with the majority (48 percent) spending 4 to 6 days at sea in 2014. A 2 to 3-day-long cruise is the second most preferred option with 38 percent, while only 12 percent went on a trip spanning 7 to 13 days.

CLIA says Asian cruise operators have moved fast to cater to this demand, offering short-haul voyage routes that depart from the ports of Shanghai or Hong Kong for destinations in Japan or South Korea.

This has seen an increase in port calls in the region, with Japan likely to be the top destination this year with 646 port calls scheduled. Malaysia (580 port calls), South Korea (377), Singapore and Thailand (374 each) round out the top five cruising hotspots in Asia.

— CNBC's Leslie Shaffer contributed to this report