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
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
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
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
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
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