On May 18, the Costa Venezia, a new Italian-themed cruise ship purpose-built for Chinese guests, will make its first departure from Shanghai, stopping at locations throughout Asia. The ship is meant to evoke the romanticism of Venice, but its real focus is on luxury retail — so much so that one of its retail areas is named Calle Larga, after Venice’s famed luxury shopping street.

The square footage dedicated to high-end shopping is massive: The ship features a two-deck Venetian-style pavilion with more than 8,000 square feet of high-end clothing, jewelry, and accessories (including Italian designers Salvatore Ferragamo, Bulgari, and Max Mara, in keeping with the theme), as well as a 2,500-plus-square-foot beauty retail space, the largest at sea — all of it tailored to Chinese shoppers.

Investing in partnerships with high-end retailers is not only becoming more common for cruise companies, but luxury shopping has also ballooned into an even bigger selling point for cruisers who are looking to make a special vacation purchase, says Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. With that in mind, cruise companies are beginning to announce luxury brand partnerships long before ships launch, and China is emerging as a major target.

“The sheer size of the potential Chinese cruise market makes it an appealing place to send dedicated ships,” she says. “We’ve seen interest in the Chinese market ebb and flow a bit, as cruise lines have had to learn about the intricacies of a new market. Companies are dedicated to China, but they want to make sure they get the product right.”

The latest attempt is readily apparent in the gilded Costa Venezia, the fruit of efforts between LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s Starboard Cruise Services and its longtime partner Costa Cruises. The Venetian opera house Teatro La Fenice inspired the ship’s theater, and the onboard décor features life-sized gondolas made by Italian artisans. In addition to the ship’s substantial list of luxury labels, this is the first time two high-end brands, Max Mara and Clé de Peau Beauté, will be carried on a ship. A unique choreographed Bulgari Jewelry Fashion Show, which features pieces for purchase onboard, is another enticement. 

“Retail shopping is one of the most important aspects of the Chinese travel experience,” says Derek Wong, vice president and general manager of cruise retail Asia for Starboard. “Starboard strategically selected luxury brands that represent the best in Italian and international designers. From our past experience in the market, we know what sought-after brands Chinese shoppers want, which include Bulgari, Salvatore Ferragamo, Max Mara, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Bally, and Jaeger-LeCoultre.”

Sweetening the deal for Chinese cruisers is the fact that the items can be purchased on board tax- and duty-free. This type of high-end retail experience that Chinese travelers prefer could be the beginning of a major trend in cruises all over the globe, McDaniel says. “The importance of shopping in the Chinese market has had a bit of a trickle-down effect for other cruise markets,” she says. “While we’re not seeing the same epic scale internationally, we are seeing higher-end retail offered. The appetite appears to be increasing worldwide.”

For shoppers aboard cruises, unlimited leisure time may translate into more money spent. Unlike a mall, a retail-focused cruise ship means a days-long captive audience buoyed by social connection and one-on-one hospitality.

“Consumer insights tell us that today’s guests want a more experiential way of shopping, especially on a leisurely cruise vacation when they have more time,” Wong says. “Starboard’s unique retail experience gives them the opportunity to explore and discover both well-known global brands and unexpected ones…. The depth of the retail experience is unlike anything available on land.”

Case in point: the evening entertainment. The Bulgari Jewelry Fashion Show is a glamour-heavy event designed to express la dolce vita (or what Costa calls “an Italian dream”), where models dressed in stilettos, silks, tuxedos, and tulle gowns showcase Bulgari jewels that are for sale at the Bulgari boutique aboard the ship. Nathan J. Clarke, the associate director and choreographer for the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games, directed the show. The spectacle is intended to function “as a tribute to femininity, grace, power, and romance” and will run once per cruise itinerary — and it’s free for Costa Venezia guests.

Costa Venezia’s much-touted beauty retail selection resides in a sprawling space located in the ship’s atrium. The section offers more than 30 international brands like Hermès, Yves Saint Laurent, La Prairie, Bulgari, Chanel, Dior, La Mer, and SK-II, as well as Asian brands Dr. Jart+, Sulwhasoo, The History of Whoo, and others. The cruise also features Starboard beauty professionals who are trained to offer beauty consultations and makeovers, Wong says.

Regarding which retail brands are doing well so far, “the first six months will give us a good sense of how well we do,” he says. “The ship is going to be in Asia in the middle of May at the start of the summer season. It will also coincide with the October national holiday, which is another peak period and will lead us into November/December. The expectation is to experience a jump in performance compared to the base we have seen on previous Costa ships.”

With more than a decade of experience in cruise retail in the Asian market, Starboard, whose Asia division now contains nine ships, began operating in Asia in 2006 with its Costa Allegra, the first ship it ever deployed inside the Chinese market. “We have a strong understanding of how the Chinese guests behave on the Costa fleet and are confident we will meet expectations,” Wong says.

The ship’s private maiden voyage (or “Vernissage cruise”) took place on March 3 ahead of its upcoming Shanghai departure, leaving from Trieste, Italy, and sailing to Greece and Croatia. The ship’s inaugural cruise took place five days later, a 53-day trip that followed the tracks of Marco Polo through the Mediterranean Sea to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North Asia before docking in Tokyo. Both cruises included international travelers from around the world, including Chinese guests.

Come mid-May, Chinese travelers will dominate the ship, and the industry will be watching whether they — and, by extension, their high-end luxury purchases — will start to change the way the entire cruise industry thinks about retail.