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Thursday, 14 March 2013 10:05

China River Cruises: A Growing Market

Written by  Lillian Africano

As cruising the great rivers of the world has become the fastest growing segment of the cruise industry, the great rivers of China have become increasingly popular, attracting not just the typical river cruise passenger - mature, well-educated, well-traveled - but also younger travelers in search of adventure. 

Judging from feedback on various cruise blogs, what passengers like about China river cruises is the ease of travel that is offered. In the hands of skilled (often multilingual) cruise directors, they do not have to cope unaided with a difficult language, unfamiliar cuisine or a culture they may not understand. Equally important is the sense of security that experienced personnel afford some travelers who might not otherwise feel comfortable in a totally unfamiliar environment.

Years ago, when travel to Russia was not as easy or as inviting as it is today, I took a river cruise on the Volga. Though the boat was very basic and not at all like the luxurious vessels of today, it afforded me simple, decent food (not always available then except at the country’s best hotels), the ability to visit small villages and towns that I otherwise might have missed, and a sense of security in a somewhat uncertain environment. Our guide warned us to stay away from certain areas and situations, but also contributed to our sense of discovery, by inviting us, after the scheduled tours were over, on impromptu excursions: a stroll though a picturesque cemetery; a visit to an elderly pensioner who had served in the Russian navy decades before; a trip to a famous flea market; a visit to a shop that sold superb caviar at reasonable prices; explorations of the extraordinary art in Russia’s subways - and more. These “unofficial” moments, which allowed a peek at the “real” Russia enriched my
visit immeasurably.

Passengers on China cruises today, especially those who have not traveled in Asia before, have experiences similar to mine when they are directed safely to new areas and knowledgeably introduced to local customs, cultural icons and the arts. Passengers have reported that they are given priority access to major attractions while other travelers wait in line - and they often mention a “special” or unique event they might not otherwise have known about. Also contributing to passenger satisfaction are the luxury elements found on the newer boats cruising the Yangtze: hotel-style bedding, French balconies, verandas, gym and spa services, boutiques, elevators, alternative dining, Internet cafes and more. Passengers also report that although there were some “unknowns” on a China cruise, they were pleased to be able to predict and monitor trip costs, due to the inclusive nature of their cruises.

At 3,915 miles, the Yangtze River is the longest in Asia, the third longest in the world. River passengers can traverse more than 600 miles of the Yangtze, experiencing exciting elements of China’s ancient culture and traditions and also visiting some of this vast country’s newer attractions. To enrich the China experience, cruise lines package a land component with the river cruise.

Viking River Cruises, the world’s largest river cruise line, is bullish on China. Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for the line says, “China is definitely a growing market for us. We launched a new ship, Viking Emerald, last year and will be launching a new itinerary - China Explorer - in 2013 that travels to Chengdu and Lijiang for the first time. This fall, we’re also launching a multi-channel marketing campaign, which will include a dedicated microsite and extensive new video content, to promote China as one of our destinations.” 

Viking offers a four-night post cruise extension, with one-night in Guilin and three nights in Hong Kong.

Avalon Waterways also reports a gain in its China cruise sales - 90 percent for next year. Said Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, “As more travelers adopt river cruising as their preferred travel style, they want to broaden their experiences. Our new ships and itineraries on...[the] Yangtze River give them the luxury they’re looking for, coupled with the exotic and enriching experiences they desire.”

Enhancing its Yangtze River offerings in 2013, Avalon is partnering with Century Cruises to offer travelers two new ships and exclusive experiences. “With help from Century Cruises, we are providing our travelers the most personalized, VIP experience available on the Yangtze River,” said Clark. “Limiting Avalon travelers to 20 people on each Century ship, we are providing them exclusive perks as well as Small Group Discovery excursions in each city.”

Off ship, in 2013, Avalon passengers will be offered private excursions in China’s less-visited cities such as Chengdu, where guests will visit the Giant Panda Research Base and Lijiang and where its medieval Old Town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Century Paragon (2012) and Century Legend (2013) feature a state-of-the-art propulsion system that decreases emissions as well as a pillar-less, multi-function lounge for unobstructed views, a large indoor swimming pool and staterooms with more than 300 square feet of living space, including private balconies.

For their clients wishing to travel to China, Uniworld also offers river cruises aboard both Century ships, as part of four cruise/tour packages. New for 2013 is the 10-day China & The Yangtze itinerary, which includes a land component in Beijing and Shanghai with the Yangtze cruise. Uniworld offers a four-day extension in Hong Kong. (Uniworld’s sister company, Trafalgar, also offers land-only packages, ranging from nine to 14 days.) In China (and throughout Asia), Uniworld’s land accommodations are at such five-star properties as Ritz Carlton and Shangri La.

Given the growing interest in Asia, it’s easy to predict that gains in China cruise sales similar to Avalon’s 90% will continue to be seen in the years ahead.

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