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Rivers of lukewarm sails, low returns

Updated: Sep 13, 2022 By ZHU WENQIAN in Beijing and DENG RUI in Chongqing China Daily Print
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A cruise ship docks at the Chaotianmen Port in Chongqing in August. [Photo/China Daily]

River cruises on the Yangtze River have seen lukewarm business this year, hampered by high temperatures in Chongqing and local COVID-19 cases in Sichuan province.

The total capacity declined about 30 percent compared with last year, industry experts said.

The Yangtze River, China's longest river and the world's third-longest, is especially known for natural scenery of the Three Gorges (Qutang Gorge, Wuxia Gorge and Xiling Gorge). They form a series of attractions between Chongqing and Yichang, Hubei province, on the middle reaches of the river.

Despite the lukewarm start to the season, a large number of cruise tours are still on in this region. But it is not smooth sailing for the overall business.

"The operation of cruise trips in the Three Gorges segment is relatively unstable due to the impact of the pandemic. This year, two new ships took to the waterways on the Yangtze River. Now, the two ships have suspended their voyages due to the pandemic," said Sun Wei, director of cruise tourism services at Tuniu Corp, a Nanjing-based online travel agency.

"With the pandemic getting under better control and given the promotion of new cruise ships, the market is expected to see a lift in the period between April and July next year," Sun said.

In 2006, the Three Gorges Dam project was completed, and an increasing number of Chinese and foreign travelers started to visit the region. A few companies began to build luxury cruise ships to operate on the Yangtze River, as per the standards of ocean cruise ships.

Compared to the past, operators of river cruise ships have been innovating their equipment and services and introduced better entertainment and services that are comparable to global cruise trips, in order to cater to strong demand of increasingly sophisticated domestic travelers.

The government will further support the growth of premium domestic waterway tourism routes, especially in the Yangtze River and the Xijiang River areas, according to a new guideline released in August by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and four other departments.

"There exists a big difference between ocean cruises and river cruises. We expect more promotions of cruise trips on the Yangtze River, as many people from North China are not familiar with such trips," said Cai Yi, operations director with Chongqing Changjiang Shipping Co, a major cruise operator on the Yangtze River.

The company said its ships resumed operations in June after a suspension of 11 months, and now their operations stand suspended again, as passenger flows have been small. There were only 50 to 80 people onboard each ship that can take in up to 600 guests, which could not cover the fixed costs.

"The situation of different cruise operators in Chongqing is similar. Based on the current trend of the pandemic in the region, the situation isn't very optimistic. We will prepare for the upcoming National Day holiday break (in the first week of October), but if the situation gets better, we can't rule out that the voyages might resume in advance," Cai said.

"The sailing routes of some short-haul cruise operators on the Yangtze River are more flexible and the costs are lower, and their operations have been on."

Before the pandemic, homogeneous competition had been fierce among cruises operating on the Yangtze River. Now, companies are looking to grow their business with differentiated routes. For instance, Century Cruises launched trips to the hinterland of the Three Gorges.

"We are planning to introduce some distinguished services similar to housekeeping services, and better integrate ground services with the cruise trips," Cai said.

Currently, Chongqing Changjiang Shipping has three cruise ships, and all of them operate routes that depart from Chongqing's Chaotianmen Port to Yichang's Maoping Port, or through the other direction.

With the launch of new high-speed railway between Zhengzhou, Henan province and Chongqing, the company is considering new cruise routes between Wanzhou district of Chongqing and Yichang, as well as between Wanzhou and Zigui, Hubei province, it said.

Besides, the company said it has preliminary plans to build new cruise ships, including large-scale ships that can carry 600 passengers and smaller ships that can carry 300 people. The plans are still awaiting the necessary company board and regulatory approvals, and need to consider some factors like the prices of raw materials.

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