Leisure trips along the Yangtze are hot favorite among domestic tourists
The global cruise ship industry has been largely suspended for more than a year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But now the big ships are increasingly taking to the waterways, with some countries such as the United Kingdom allowing fully vaccinated passengers to get onboard.
Last year, major cruise operators Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Group and Norwegian Cruise Line saw their net losses reach $5.8 billion, $2.2 billion and $4 billion, respectively, according to the companies.
By comparison, the business performance of cruise operators in China, especially those plying the Yangtze River, has fared better. Most cruises started to set sail again beginning in July last year as the pandemic was brought under better control in the country.
River cruise tours in China are innovating their operations with high-end equipment, better entertainment and services comparable to global cruise trips in order to satisfy increasingly higher demand from domestic travelers.
From January to April, passenger numbers on luxury Yangzte River cruise tours far exceeded the figure recorded in the same period of last year. It also reached about 60 percent of the total in the same period of 2019, said Chongqing Changjiang Shipping Co Ltd, a major cruise operator on the Yangzte River.
The company said that since the pandemic, river cruises have introduced various entertainment programs and diversified cuisines onboard to attract more travelers. In addition, onboard services are more flexible, and have become more similar to the operating style of international ocean cruises.
“Our cruise trips have been fully booked in the past few months. The route between Chongqing and Yichang, Hubei province, is the most popular, and the trip usually lasts four days and three nights. Its sales accounted for the largest portion of total routes available,” said Cai Yi, an operating director with Chongqing Changjiang Shipping.
“Now, ships offering river cruises are larger, and onboard public spaces are designed to be larger. Comprehensive facilities and high-quality onboard services are also provided to make the products more competitive,” Cai said.
The Yangtze River, the longest river in China and the third-longest in the world, enjoys fame for scenes of the Three Gorges (Qutang, Wu and Xiling). They form a series of natural and cultural attractions on the Yangtze River between Chongqing and Yichang on the middle reaches of the river, and a large number of cruise tours are plying this route.
On May 18, a new high-end cruise ship manufactured by Chongqing Changjiang Shipping was launched for operation on the Yangzte River at a later date. The company started building the ship since July last year, and it was the first river cruise ship newly built in China after the outbreak of the pandemic. The company will operate leisure routes from Chongqing to Shanghai along the river.
Meanwhile, the company recently launched two new short-distance river routes from Chongqing Chaotianmen Port to other districts in the city, as it aims to attract more young consumers from Chongqing as well as from Sichuan province and neighboring areas, the company said.
Later this year and in the next few years, the company said it plans to launch more high-end cruise tour options.
With a large number of companies operating similar routes along the Yangzte, business operations have been homogenized with overcapacity and fierce competition. The phenomenon has posed certain challenges for sales by cruise operators.
Currently, most online travel agencies offer bookings for Yangzte cruise tours with itineraries that include 15-day tours from Chongqing to Shanghai, or midrange tours that last four to five days, as well as half-day tours.
During the Labor Day holiday in early May, cruising tours on the Yangtze that depart from Chongqing have been highly sought after by domestic travelers, and both booking volumes and prices increased compared with last year, according to Beijing-based online travel agency Qunar.
“Cruise tours have been an emerging travel product. Given their comfort and convenience, with catering and entertainment included, it has been favored by many family travelers, especially those traveling with elderly family members,” said Song Yawen, marketing director of tourism business at Qunar.
“Chongqing has been a traditional popular tourist destination, and it has attracted thousands of travelers during holidays. For a lot of families, they have been to conventional tourist attractions in Chongqing, and they would like to experience something different such as cruising tours,” Song said.
The natural scenery along the Yangtze and entertainment facilities aboard ships serve as attractive travel experiences. Facilities and amenities onboard can satisfy demand from different age groups, making trips satisfying for everyone in the family, Qunar said.
Meanwhile, Chongqing Dongjiang Shipping Industry Co Ltd, a major cruise operator, said before the pandemic, the company mainly operated river routes from Chongqing to Yichang. In March, it launched new routes from Chongqing to Wuhan, Hubei province and Chongqing to Shanghai, the downstream stretch of the river.
“Since March, our river cruise tours have been burgeoning, and most customers are those traveling with their families. Still, some contagion prevention rules have created certain pressures for company operations,” said Tang Xiangjing, marketing manager at Chongqing Dongjiang.
Tang said according to contagion prevention requirements, cruise ships are now allowed to carry up to 90 percent of total passenger capacity, and so far the company has seen its ships about 90 percent loaded. In addition, different groups of travelers are required to sit at separate tables when dining. The company also installed air purifiers on its ships last year.
Hampered by the pandemic, many travelers who used to frequently travel abroad and preferred sea cruise trips began to travel domestically. The company has seen booming reservations for its domestic summer cruising options.
Increasingly higher demand from travelers has driven the company to optimize the design of cruise routes while also upgrading onboard food, beverages and entertainment. For the longest available route from Chongqing to Shanghai, which carries a higher price tag than other options, customers have shown higher demand for facilities and services, the company said.
“In the second half of this year, we plan to build new ships to cater to increasing demand from travelers. Starting in August, we will begin to build a new ship,” Tang said.
For those who take river cruise tours, most are middle-aged and elderly passengers. For travelers born between 1980 and 1995, more than half of those surveyed said they prefer sea cruise trips and 10 percent said they prefer river cruise trips, according to an earlier report by Shanghai International Cruise Business Institute.
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An aerial view of a cruise ship, operated by Chongqing Changjiang Shipping Co Ltd, on the Yangtze River. CHINA DAILY
Passengers on the deck of a cruise ship admire scenic views of the Wuxia Gorge off the Yangtze River. CHINA DAILY