Through the Mist

Yangtze River Cruises Provide Unforgettable Journey

By: Kenneth Shapiro

YICHANG, China The Three Gorges of the Yangtze River is China’s top tourist attraction, drawing more than 500,000 cruise passengers a year. Yet confusion over the current state of the region even among travel professionals lingers like the mist in the green peaks of the gorges themselves.

As one travel agent said to me when I returned from a recent hosted visit: “I thought the Three Gorges were one big lake now.”

Most of the confusion is due to the monumental Three Gorges Dam Project, which will be the largest hydroelectric dam in the world stretching nearly a mile across and towering 575 feet above the world’s third-longest river.

In June, project officials announced the completion of the second stage of construction. The final stage is due to be completed in 2009.

The dam has had great repercussions on the Yangtze, particularly for the travel industry. For better and for worse.

A dam on the Yangtze River is not a new idea. It was proposed by Dr. Sun Yat-sen more than 80 years ago. Construction of the Three Gorges Dam began in 1993, and the Chinese government plans to spend more than $25 billion on the project, a modern marvel of engineering and logistics.

There are two main reasons for the dam’s construction. First, it will provide stable hydroelectric power. Second, it will aid flood control for cities downriver, a motivation that cannot be overemphasized.

In 1998, for instance, floods on the Yangtze River left thousands dead and millions more homeless. The economic impact of the 1998 flood was estimated at $20 billion, nearly the cost of the dam, so the project could be considered a bargain.

Construction of the dam has increased water levels upstream, necessitating the relocation of entire villages.

Incredibly, the Chinese government has built whole new cities, complete with wide avenues and gleaming, modern high-rise apartment buildings, for the displaced townspeople and their households.

Since the completion of the dam’s second stage in June, the Yangtze River upstream is an average of 150 feet higher, with the water level in the gorges closer to 200 feet higher.

When the project is completed, the river is expected to be 575 feet higher still. This has had and will continue to have a broad impact on tourism along the river.

Ten years ago a cruise on the Yangtze had the feeling of a grand, and perhaps foolhardy, adventure.

The canyons were impossibly steep and jagged, the river extremely shallow at points and a vessel’s twists and turns were more akin to gymnastics than to sailing.

The size of river-going ships was limited and night trips were impossible. The captain of a Yangtze riverboat had to be an artist when it came to reading the river’s currents.

And, according to some, the challenge was the fun of it all.

Today, a trip on the brown and emerald waters of the Yangtze is more like puttering down the Mississippi River than navigating the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The cliffs are not as steep and imposing, the steering is simpler and less dramatic and perhaps some of the spirit of adventure has been lost.

Likewise, many tourist attractions and ancient sites and shrines have been lost under the rising water.

By their own accounts, dam officials say at least 44 archaeological sites and ancient monuments will be affected by the rising waters. Others put the number even higher.

One journalist based in Beijing summed it up this way: “For those who have been to the Three Gorges in the past, this is an entirely different experience. “And the river’s greatness will only be a memory to them.”

While there certainly are reasons to mourn the change in the Yangtze, the “new” river does bring some undeniable advantages. Among these is the opportunity for increased tourism.

Although higher water levels have eliminated some of the natural drama of the Three Gorges, a Yangtze River cruise still provides an unforgettable journey through spectacular scenery.

For example, water in Wu Gorge has risen about 200 feet but the Goddess Peak, a well-known landmark, is almost 3,300 feet high, said Li Weiping, general manager of the China Hubei Overseas Travel Group, a major tour operator in the area.

“People still have to crane up to glimpse the Goddess high in the clouds,” he said.

Given the majesty of the Three Gorges, losing a couple hundred feet really doesn’t diminish the grandeur, especially for first-time visitors. Furthermore, because the river is wider, deeper and less complicated, the size and number of ships on the Yangtze inevitably will grow.

And bigger ships mean more tourists.

Currently there are more than 20 large cruise companies with nearly 50 ships of three- star quality or better operating on the Yangtze, and Chinese tourism officials expect that number to increase substantially in the next few years.

Already there are several tour and cruise companies jumping into the Yangtze market, most recently Viking River Cruises, which will begin sailing next year.

This cruise business will be aided by the recent completion of a permanent five-stage ship lock near the dam, as well as by installation of the world’s largest ship lift, capable of handling vessels of as much as 3,000 tons.

The lock allows cruise companies to use a vast stretch of river, from Chongqing through the Three Gorges all the way to Shanghai (about 1,500 miles), and enables them to offer longer itineraries.

The increased water levels will aid tourism in another way as well. Because the water is higher, previously unnavigable Yangtze tributaries are now open to visitors.

For instance, clients can take an excursion up the “Lesser Three Gorges” of the Daning River or visit to the Tujia boat trackers on Shengnong Stream.

Even the dam itself, along with the ship lock, will be of interest to tourists. Not overlooking this potential, Chinese authorities plan to turn the town built to house the dam’s construction crews into a tourist destination complete with newly built hotels and other services.

The flood control that the dam provides also has enabled cities like Wuhan, a downstream city with a population of over 8 million, to build a new waterfront area and new facilities for cruise ships.

Additional infrastructure improvements are to include new roads and bridges, as well as new construction and more flights at centrally located Yichang airport (which currently is such a sleepy airport that cattle graze on its front lawn).

Finally, although many conservationists say the Chinese government is generally unconcerned about protecting archaeological sites, Beijing has made incredible efforts to protect many of the river’s major cultural treasures.

Baidicheng, an ancient and storied enclave called the White Emperor Town, will become an island resort in the river. Dikes are to be built around the 12-story wooden pagoda at Shibaozhai.

And, in perhaps the most incredible accommodation of all, Baiheliang, the world’s oldest hydrological station, is to be turned into an underwater museum through the joint efforts of UNESCO and the China Cultural Heritage Department.

While there is no denying that the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River will never be as they once were, it’s equally certain that clients visiting the Yangtze will still marvel at the exotic beauty of one of the world’s most unusual destinations.

Perhaps most important thing for travel professionals to keep in mind is that, as much as the Three Gorges have changed, the area is going to change again and again in the future.

So now is the time for clients to go, so they can get a look for themselves.