Viking River to Offer China Cruise

Los Angeles-based Viking River Cruises will be offering a China program.

By: Theresa Norton Masek

Los Angeles-based Viking River Cruises, a specialist in European inland voyages, is crossing the Pacific Ocean for the first time to offer a China program.

The company will launch a Yangtze River cruise in early March, with the schedule to continue through December 2004, said Viking River President Jeff Dash.

“China is definitely emerging as a huge destination,” Dash said. “When we look for expansion and opportunities, we want to go where our customers want to go.” Viking River’s program is centered around seven-day Yangtze cruises, instead of the typical three- and four-day voyages.

“We want to ensure people see more of the country,” Dash said. “When we get to the Three Gorges Dam, we want to have enough time so people understand the scope, size and scale of it. We had to slow it down to seven nights so people aren’t rushed and can see more, including Wuhan and Chongqing.”

Viking River is combining the cruise with land stays in China and other Asian countries for five different packages of nine to 16 days.

The basic nine-night package is priced from $1,649, including the cruise, one hotel night each in Beijing and Shanghai, 26 meals and intra-Asia flights. The fare is $2,249 including trans-Pacific air from Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco and Seattle.

The cruises will be operated on the new Century Star, a 186-passenger river vessel that offers a balcony with every stateroom, a rarity on riverboats. The ship, built in Chongqing, has a two-deck lobby, a sun deck, a restaurant, a teahouse, lobby bar, a fitness center, an Internet center and a ballroom.

“The ship will be a wonderful experience, but long-term we will really make the biggest gains by providing good service,” Dash said. “I want to have the best hardware I can, given the constraints of the river, but I also want us to have ‘wow’ customer service.”

The Century Star will be managed by Swiss hotel and catering managers on board, offering passengers Chinese delicacies as well as Western dishes daily. “Savoring local cuisine is an integral part of any travel experience, but the prospect of the unknown, or day after day of fried rice, is enough to discourage even the most intrepid traveler,” the company says in its new brochure, now being printed.

China is often perceived as a challenging country to visit, but Dash said the tourism facilities are improving.

“The infrastructure is getting much better, and the partners we have found really prove to us that we can deliver a competitive product up to our standards in Europe,” he said. “We will bring to people a truly comfortable, catered experience.”

Viking River has opened offices in Beijing and Chongqing and hired English-speaking guides who will meet passengers at the airport and escort them throughout the trip.

Passengers will be pre-checked into hotels to minimize lobby waits, and all baggage will be transported.

Dash said the company wasn’t deterred by the outbreak of SARS earlier this year. “We were talking to them before, during and after SARS. We are 100 percent committed to China, now more than ever,” Dash said. “I think China will become our next great expansion spot.”