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River cruise line executives are reporting a surge of interest in Asia this year, especially with itineraries mostly centered on the Yangtze River in China and the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Century Sky on the Yangtze River // (C) 2010 Century Cruises
Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking River Cruises, confirmed the rise of popularity in cruising in China this year.
“We’re certainly seeing a resurgence in demand for China,” Marnell said. “There’s some space remaining, but we’re doing much better this year than in recent times.”
Marnell attributed some of the response to two Viking promotions: a two-for-one offer on cruise and airfare that expires on March 31 and the company’s involvement in a recent U.S. tour that displayed some of China’s famed Terra-Cotta Warrior statues.
Another factor drawing the attention of travelers to Asia is the World Expo 2010 Shanghai, an attraction in and of itself and an important selling point this year in the region since Shanghai is a turnaround port for many Yangtze cruises. Running from May 1 through Oct. 31 on a 1,300-acre site straddling the Huangpu River, the fair is attracting a record number of participating countries (nearly 200) creating displays on the theme of urban life and the environment, and it is expected to be a magnificent spectacle.
“The Chinese do an amazing job on the international stage,” said Guy Young, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection president.
Young also projected a greatly improved year in China, which he said had a peak year in 2007.
“Looking back, 2008 and 2009 were weaker,” he added, “but bookings in 2010 are coming in close to doubling last year’s level.”
Yangtze ProductOn the Yangtze, the near completion of the Three Gorges Dam project and stabilization of the waters have substantially changed the face of cruising in China. The chances of flooding or drought have been reduced greatly, and freight traffic on the river can now rely on enough water for passage, which has stimulated the economy in the region considerably.
A massive relocation project has taken people from ancient villages to newly created ones, and the new water levels bring visitors to isolated mountain villages for the first time. The sheer, dramatic cliffs still rise high over the river, and the cities and towns along the way trace the history of this influential part of China. On the Yangtze, passengers visit markets, temples, ancient villages and growing cities.
Onboard, the cruise lines are demonstrating their strength in enrichment programs during the four- to nine-day sailings, with instructors teaching everything from tai chi to Chinese cooking classes and local guides who can speak directly to the changes of the present day as well as the history of the region. Cruises generally sail between Chongqing and Shanghai, Chongqing and Yichang (a port for foreign trade in the 19th century after the Second Opium War with Britain) or roundtrip from Chongqing. The length of the cruise is partly dictated by whether it is an upstream or downstream route (upstream is, of course, longer), and some lines arrange different ports and shore experiences in either directions, providing an opportunity for back-to-back cruising.
New Vietnam CruisesAnother itinerary that has garnered a great deal of attention in Asia is Amawaterways’ new Vietnam and Cambodia program, introduced last fall with one ship, La Marguerite. Its success has prompted construction of a second, larger ship for 2011 sailings.
Rudi Schreiner, president of Amawaterways, called the Mekong “a magnificent river,” noting its size (nearly a mile wide in most areas) and wonderful scenery dotted with small villages, temples and islands, as well as major centers and attractions including Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon, Vietnam, as well as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
“I think the Mekong will be a big future development, and there are plenty of additional directions to go there,” Schreiner said. “It is only navigable for us from the middle down, but a German operator has a small ship operation on the Upper Mekong, and we may add that as a pre- or post-cruise option.”
He sees additional potential in other parts of Asia as well.
“In the past, I have looked into [various rivers in] India and the Irrawaddy River in Burma, and I still might consider eventually moving into other parts of Asia,” he said. “But one new destination is enough for a couple more years.”
Amawaterways currently operates the 46-cabin La Marguerite; its second ship in Asia, which is currently unnamed, will be larger. The vessel will be 295 feet long as opposed to La Marguerite’s 246 feet and will accommodate as many as 124 passengers in 62 balcony cabins. The unnamed ship will offer 10 junior suites and two full suites featuring tropical woods and regional Khmer artifacts. Next year, both vessels will offer seven-day Mekong cruises between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, departing on the same day with one sailing upstream and the other downstream.
New Ships in ChinaNew ships continue to make their appearance on China’s Yangtze as well, with features such as Executive Suite Decks launched on Victoria Cruises’ new Victoria Jenna, which will also be added to Victoria Anna and Victoria Katarina during renovations in March. The suites, each more than 360 square feet, have an exclusive lounge area, private check-in, concierge service and a private bar. The 400-passenger Jenna is not only the largest of Victoria’s eight-ship fleet, it is also the largest operating river cruise vessel to date and the industry’s first to have four elevators, two separate full-service kitchens and wireless CDMA Internet.
Another new ship on the Yangtze is Century Cruises’ Century Emerald, debuting Asia Choices Expand.
For the North American market, a trip to Asia generally means a longer stay. After spending considerable money and time flying to the destination, travelers understandably want to experience as much of the region as they can. River cruising offers a way to do that with ease, and the cruise lines are creating new itineraries that offer combinations of Asian countries for their guests.
Launched in September 2009, Amawaterways’ 15-day Vietnam, Cambodia & the Riches of the Mekong itinerary combines a Mekong River cruise with two nights in Hanoi, Vietnam. It also includes an overnight cruise onboard a luxury junk in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; three nights in Siem Reap, a gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the legendary Angkor Wat; and an overnight in historic Ho Chi Minh City.
Avalon Waterways has two programs in China and the Yangtze: the 13-day Magical China & the Yangtze River itinerary, from Shanghai to Beijing, and the 17-day Heart of China & the Yangtze River itinerary, from Beijing to Hong Kong. In addition, the company combines China and the Himalayas with the 15-day Cultural China & Tibet with Yangtze River Cruise, from Beijing to Shanghai, and China with Mongolia in the 18-day Fascinating China & Mongolia with Yangtze River Cruise, from Shanghai to Beijing.
At Viking, Marnell said sales are going strong for the 16-day Roof of the World package from Beijing to Shanghai.
“We’re the only ones who operate our own vessel in China, and it shows,” he stated.
Viking is offering a two-night, post-cruise extension for the World Expo in Shanghai as well as a four-day Hong Kong extension, both of which are doing well, according to Marnell.
Uniworld’s Young noted that the company is offering two new itineraries in China, both on the new Victoria Jenna: The 12-day Highlights of China and the Yangtze, from Beijing to Shanghai, and the 17-day Grand China and the Yangtze from Beijing to Hong Kong.
“We’re seeing the shorter itinerary selling particularly well this year,” said Young.
The river cruise lines point out that the penetration into the authentic cultural experience in both Europe and Asia remains a key selling point for baby boomers and for younger travelers who don’t want to be branded with the “tourist” label. They see continuous growth ahead as word spreads about the depth of exploration from the comfort of a river boat.
Century Cruises 516-312-2439www.centuryrivercruises.com
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection 800-733-7820www.uniworld.com
Viking River Cruises800-304-9616www.vikingrivercruises.com