The fate of Star Cruises' Taiwan cruise operations depends on diplomatic relations between the island nation and China, senior company officials told Cruise Industry News.

Star Cruises would like to homeport the 1,480-passenger SuperStar Libra (ex-Norwegian Sea) in Taiwan and sail to mainland China as it did last year, but the Chinese government must approve such a deal. The Taiwanese government signed off on their side of the agreement last month. Approval from the Chinese government may not be reached before the Asian cruise season picks up in April, said a company spokesperson at the line's Hong Kong headquarters.

"We had been very well received by the Taiwanese," the spokesperson said. "Our ship SuperStar Libra was deployed to Taiwan from March 26, 2008 to Nov. 1, 2008 and homeported in Keelung (northeast of Taipei City). She proved to be very popular with the Taiwanese populace."

The SuperStar Libra also sailed from Keelung in 2007. In January of this year, she sailed briefly from Singapore but has been laid up alongside the Port Klang terminal in Malaysia since then. The spokesperson declined to say how many passengers Star Cruises embarked from Taiwan each year, but implied the numbers were substantial.

It could take another month before an agreement is reached as the application was only "a preliminary step." Many "procedural issues" have yet to be ironed out.

Costa Cruises recently received permission from the Chinese Ministry of Transportation to operate three cruises from China across the Taiwan Strait. Costa will sail the Costa Classica from Shanghai, calling in Hualien, Jilong and Taizhong in Taiwan for three cruises in April and May. The itineraries are seven-days, six-nights.

Plan B

Star declined to describe a contingency itinerary for the ship should China not approve a cross-strait itinerary. The spokesperson said when they do reach an agreement, however, advertising the last-minute Taiwan sailings would likely not adversely affect bookings.

"Chinese (and Taiwanese) people don't really plan their vacation too far in advance," he said, noting the stark difference from North American or European brands which evaluate sales on bookings made months before a sailing. "They would never plan their cruises months or a year in advance."

Another departure from Western cruises is that the passengers getting on the ships tend to be entire extended families. More often than not, three generations of families including cousins and more distant relations will book a cruise together, the spokesperson explained. Star's cruise season depends so heavily on these family sailings that it only operates destination cruises from Hong Kong from April to September, a period when children have ample time off school. The rest of the year is dedicated to overnight or day cruises.

Star depends on its returning VIP customers for most overnight and one-day bookings. VIPs are passengers who have purchased a HK$100 (about US$12.89) membership card. The passenger collects points on the card for each dollar spent onboard. The points are redeemable for discounts on future cruise bookings.

The overnight and day cruises are popular with people needing to "get away from the bustle of the city," according to the spokesperson, who declined to say how many VIP members the line has.