Ask anyone in the travel business what the hottest destination
in the world is right now, and chances are, they’ll say, China. The
China buzz is particularly strong in the cruise industry, which has
China in its sights as a huge feeder market as well as a
destination. It’s not surprising, then, that the world’s largest
river cruise company, Viking River Cruises, has worked steadily
over the past few years to establish itself in the all-important
Yangtze River trade. In March 2004, the line introduced the
186-passenger Viking Century Star on the Yangtze, operating from
Chongqing to Wuhan, in partnership with one of China’s premiere
tour companies, New Century Cruise Company. Following the success
of the Century Star, Viking rolled out the newly built,
306-passenger Viking Century Sky in April.
More than 150 invited guests, including TravelAge West
publisher Michelle Rosenberg, attended the eight-day inaugural
event in China. Festivities included a pre-cruise stay in Beijing
and a post-cruise stay in Shanghai at Five-Star Hotels featured in
Viking’s Cruisetour itineraries. The centerpiece of the inaugural,
of course, was a three-day cruise on the Century Sky, which
featured stops at the Shibaozhai Temple, Qutang Gorge, the Lesser
Three Gorges, and the imposing Three Gorges Dam.
The cruise began memorably, to say the least. Sudden, heavy
rains flooded the pier facilities at Chongqing. Guests had to
gingerly walk across the river on an impromptu walkway constructed
with a combination of pontoon floats and corrugated metal planks,
something those with walking disabilities had difficulty managing.
It was a sobering lesson that, for all of China’s interest in
attracting tourists, the country still has far to go in its
Once all were safely aboard, the sail-away party began. Guests
were treated to Chinese lion dancers, musicians, plenty of
champagne and speeches by a list of dignitaries, including
executives from Viking, New Century Cruise Company, local Chinese
dignitaries, and representatives from the China National Tourism
The Century Sky is the second of three vessels resulting from
the partnership between Viking and the New Century Cruise Company.
The latter built and owns the vessels, which in turn are leased and
operated by Viking. A third vessel, the Viking Century Sun (sister
to the Century Sky) will debut in 2006.
Viking Chairman Torstein Hagen pointed out that the introduction
of a second ship on the Yangtze would give passengers greater
travel options and flexibility.
“The opportunities in China are immense,” Hagen noted.
Currently, the line offers five different Cruisetour itineraries
in China, ranging from nine to 18 nights, featuring a three- or
four-night cruise (depending on direction) between Chongqing and
the Three Gorges Dam, or a nine-night cruise between Chongqing and
The new Viking vessel certainly scored highly with inaugural
guests. The 415-foot-long, 56-foot-wide Century Sky is the largest
in Viking’s fleet, with six decks and a Scandinavian decor, in
homage to the line’s Viking name. Each of her 153 cabins has a
small, private balcony, bathroom with a shower, telephone, TV, air
conditioning, in-room safe and hair dryer. The Century Sky also
featured two elevators, unusual for any river vessel, as well as an
Internet cafe, observation lounge, sauna, sun deck, bar, shops,
business center, gym and beauty salon. Another unique feature was
the vessel’s spa facility. Although the ambience could be improved
with some soft music and dim lights, the rooms were good sized, and
the prices were very reasonable. (a traditional Chinese massage
Travel Consultant Nancy Vick, of Worldview Travel in La Jolla,
Calif., also sailed on the Century Sky in April, and was quite
impressed with the ship’s facilities.
“Everything about the decor was beautiful. This ship was head
and shoulders above anything else that we saw on the river,” she
said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is the only way to see
There was one detail about the staterooms that Vick thought was
a bit odd.
“The suites were quite lovely, but they had the same exact
bathroom as the rest of the rooms. I expected to see a bathtub, or
some extra amenities,” she said.
Viking’s president, Jeffrey Dash, emphasized during the
inaugural that the availability of a huge labor pool is one of the
factors that makes China so attractive.
“You don’t see the service ratio we have here in China anywhere
else in the world. These people are eager to be a part of
something,” he said.
While some of the staff’s English-speaking skills were a bit
rough, and some staff, such as room attendants, spoke virtually no
English, management-level staff was always available to smooth
“You almost didn’t want to ask the staff to do anything for you
because they were all so nice, friendly and had a great attitude.
You could tell they were all so proud to be working on the ship,”
Staff members were also eager to learn the “American” way of
doing things, such as preparing and serving popular cocktails.
“I asked for a Manhattan and it wasn’t quite made right. The bar
manager found me, apologized, and came out to the deck to give me
another drink, complimentary. That made a real impression on me,”
Many of the Century Sky’s staff had taken on “Americanized”
names, so there were lots of “Britneys” and “Justins” roaming
about. Rosenberg took note of one staff member, named
“I asked her if her name in Chinese translated to ‘Chocolate,’
but she said no. She said, ‘People say that I am sweet. So, I
picked the name chocolate, because that is sweet,’” said
Dining onboard the Century Sky was another area drawing praise
from inaugural guests. The line is quite proud of its Western
kitchen and Swiss-managed service, but also showed off some Chinese
specialties. Famous chef and cookbook author Martin Yan, star of
the TV show “Yan Can Cook,” was hired to design menus, using the
highest quality Chinese ingredients available.
“The food was quite good. There’s a Western-style breakfast and
lunch buffet, with wonderful salads and lots of variety. We had
Western-style dinners, and a special Chinese night, which we all
agreed was the best meal onboard. They served family style, with a
Lazy Susan in the middle of the table,” said Vick.
Though onboard facilities and service are crucial to a
successful operation in China, Viking is looking at a much broader
“With China, it is about selling the country. We’re hoping to
become champions of the destination, and not just the Viking
product,” said Dash. “If you can come here and fully experience
China, the food, and the culture, then I did my job.”