If you have never traveled to Singapore, you have missed a special country. It is officially The Republic of Singapore and is an island country off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, 85 miles north of the equator, in Southeast Asia. It is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to the north and from Indonesia’s Riau Island by the Singapore Straits to its south. It is the world’s fourth leading financial center and a cosmopolitan city with many high-rise buildings. The port of Singapore is one of the five largest ports in the world.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s I wore two hats in business. One hat was that of a television director and the other was being employed in the cruise business. What I will relate today is the experience of working for a Norwegian ship owner who had more than 80 cargo and tanker ships and one cruise ship.
I began my cruise line experience as part of the start-up for Royal Cruise Line in San Francisco. Our first ship was the Golden Odyssey. The president was Dick Revnes who was a genius with regard to marketing and pleasing the traveling public. Royal Cruise Line was the first company to offer air travel to and from the ship with its own chartered aircraft, a 747. This all began in 1972.
Our ship offered cruises in the Caribbean and Panama Canal during the winter months and moved to the Mediterranean for summer cruises. We generally had nothing but happy passengers with our new and very modern ship, great food, good lecturers and the included air.
I was the sales manager. My duties were to conduct travel agent seminars throughout the U.S. extolling the line’s virtues and encouraging the agents to book clients on our ship. Sometimes I would travel on the ship with travel agents and conduct seminars at sea.
Our customer acceptance grew quickly and our company gained a positive reputation within the travel agent community as well as the public.
Two years later, the owner of a company known as Norwegian Asia Line approached me and he asked if he could have a meeting with me. At the meeting he told me about his venture into the cargo and petroleum shipping business and the fact that he had purchased the former Norwegian American liner, the Bergensfjord. He asked if I would join his company based in Singapore where his general offices were and where he was going to position the Bergensfjord for two-week cruises from Singapore to Malaysia and Indonesia. He wanted me to be the manager of his cruise ship operation and to appoint sales managers in Asia, North and South America as well as Europe and Australia.
To make a long story short, I took the position and challenge. A month later I was on Singapore Airlines from Los Angeles bound for Singapore. I had been there several times in the 1960s and was always impressed with the cleanliness of the city as well as the tightly run government.
Everything and everyone worked. It is a very beautiful tropical city with lavish plants, trees and modern architecture. It is a city-state and everyone seems to pull in the same direction to make the small country work well.
Soon after getting there our cruise ship arrived, now re-named the Rasa Sayang to suit the area of the world in which it was cruising. The ship was 576 feet long, had 7 decks, two swimming pools, a casino, plenty of deck space for sunning and relaxing, lounges, bars, large dining room etc. It had been a world class around the world liner. Now, 19 years old, she was going to be a warm weather cruise liner. She had just been re-furbished in a dockyard in Europe before coming to Singapore. She looked spanking new!
Since we began with only one ship, I made a contractual arrangement with a leading tour company in Singapore, Tour East, to be our marketing people in the area as well as to handle the shore-side office needs and reservations. I set up the staff for crew and officer employment, navigation department, as well as purchasing supplies and food for the ship.
We called our line Cruise East, which complemented the Tour East arrangement.
My next assignment was to hire the regional sales managers in the various parts of the world I mentioned earlier. This done, I set out to frequently work with the various managers in their respective areas as well as maintain my position in Singapore.
The cruise line was doing rather well with most of our passengers initially coming from the greater Singapore area plus Australia and New Zealand. These two countries were only six flying hours from Singapore and I arranged for chartered flights to the ship for these passengers.
As for passengers from the United States, Europe and other areas, the flying time was rather long and people simply did not wish to travel on a plane for so many hours to take a cruise. From the U.S. West Coast alone it took 22 flying hours each way. So, bookings were slow from America and Europe.
Norwegian Asia Line with its freight and tanker operation was not doing well in the early part of 1975 and the owner asked what we might do to improve business. I suggested we go to China and open up that country to our business. For the mid 1970s this was a bold move in that Europe was doing little business with China, which was still mostly closed to the rest of the world, and U.S. business was almost nil. Being Norwegian, our owner was able to get me a visa to enter China within a few days of request.
I flew from Los Angeles, still my main residence, to Tokyo, obtained a visa from the Chinese Embassy, returned to the airport and caught a Japan Airlines flight to Beijing. At this point my corporate title had become Chief Negotiator for Norwegian Asia Line. The Chinese respect titles. Beijing in the mid-1970s was mostly as it probably looked in the 1930s. No new construction, old style furnishings in buildings, doilies on chair backs, fringes on lampshades etc.
The negotiations with the Chinese officials took some three days to work out an arrangement whereby seven of our cargo ships would carry freight from China to Europe, the U.S. and other parts of the world with our Norwegian flagged ships and crews. At that time the Unions of the so-called free world would not handle Communist Chinese ships. Our Norwegian ships could do business anywhere in the world.
As part of this first negotiation I was also able to get permission for our cruise ship, the Rasa Sayang, which held 550 passengers, to cruise to China with passengers from Europe, America and other areas of the free world. Americans alone were anxious to see China and now we were able to offer a look-see into this almost unknown world in Asia.
I ran one full-page ad in the travel section of the Los Angeles Times newspaper one Sunday and was able to sell one years’ worth of passengers on the ship to see China. I didn’t have to spend any more money for some months to advertise the cruise in any other marketing area or country. I chartered two PanAm 747’s to carry passengers from Los Angeles to China for the cruises and everyone was most happy with the results.
For the next five years I continued to work with the Chinese officials and the business arrangement ended with their employing more than 40 of our cargo ships for worldwide freight distribution. During these years I often flew to Beijing and Shanghai and was also able to see many other areas of China.
Since then, China has grown with its cheap manufacturing and marketing to companies all over the world. Where will it end?
It was my experience to be part of opening of China to the free world in the mid-1970s and one that I will never forget.