In 2009, the Yangtze River's massive Three Gorges Dam project was completed. That same year, cruising along the Yangtze saw a dramatic downturn, and the industry has been working to reinvent itself ever since.
The result has been a shift from a high-volume product to a higher-quality product, simultaneous with an ongoing effort to combat negative perceptions about the dam and its impact.
"I think it's more a question of how the market is evolving than where it's growing," said Larry Greenman, manager of public relations and customer service for Victoria Cruises, one of the dominant river cruise players on the Yangtze. "On the one hand, travel to China has become increasingly affordable since the economic downturn peaked in 2009."
In addition, he said, "As the Yangtze is now considered a must-see segment of any introductory China vacation, we do anticipate that numbers will continue to grow, but the larger development has been the increased demand for luxury amenities beyond the typical offering."
Victoria Cruises still hasn't seen its numbers from the North American market return to 2008 levels, when 45,000 Americans took a Yangtze River cruise with the company.
In 2009, that number dropped to 15,000 and has been slowly recovering, reaching 30,000 last year. But that is not a result of a recovering U.S. market. Victoria said that increases in passengers from Europe and Australia have been making up for decreases from North America.
In the meantime, Victoria has been pouring money into its fleet of seven ships to meet the new demand for luxury amenities. The Woodside, N.Y.-based line finished a two-year, $10 million overhaul of five ships in 2012 and invested another $4.5 million in upgrading the 270-passenger Victoria Anna, which it unveiled earlier this year.
Anna's sister ship, the Victoria Katarina, which was originally slated for a renovation alongside the Anna, will undergo a similar redo next winter, Victoria Cruises has said.
A major component of Victoria's refurb program has been the addition of the Executive Amenities Program, a premium option that includes an executive lounge; concierge service; upgraded cabin categories; an exclusive dining room; private, small-group shore excursions; happy hour; complimentary Internet access; and complimentary laundry and shoe shine services, plus reserved seating for evening entertainment.
"It is quickly becoming the new standard for North American travelers," Greenman said of the Executive Amenities Program, adding that Victoria's U.S. tour operator partners often buy into this upgraded program.
Indeed, the entire Yangtze River cruise market appears to be stepping up its game as it strives to court consumers who are demanding something more in line with the upscale European river cruising experience.
This year, at least two Chinese companies are launching newbuilds to offer this more luxurious form of travel on the Yangtze.
In 2013, President Cruises, a Chinese company, is introducing two 462-passenger sister ships: the President 7 and President 8. The new ships feature a heated indoor pool, a putting green, a cinema and conference facilities. They also have 216 cabins at 260 square feet each, 12 executive suites at 376 square feet each and two 742-square-foot presidential suites.
Similarly, Century Cruises is making a big splash with its two new 398-passenger vessels, the Century Paragon and Century Legend, which attempt to raise the standard of river cruising on the Yangtze. (View a slideshow from the recent inaugural sailing of the Century Paragon by clicking here or on the photos.)
The Century ships boast a 2,153-square-foot indoor pool area and a 150-passenger movie theater. And, like the Victoria vessels, for those clients who maybe would like a little more exclusivity and detachment from the other passengers, there are two dedicated executive levels with an exclusive a la carte restaurant, reception area, bar and sun deck.
Century invested $24 million each in the Paragon and the Legend, and the company's efforts appear to be paying off. Avalon Waterways and Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection have already secured charter agreements on the new Century ships. And Century has about 20,000 U.S. passengers currently booked for 2013. In 2012, the company booked 38,000 U.S. passengers.
"Overall, our business to China is up over 30%," said Uniworld President Guy Young, who attended the Century Paragon's christening ceremony in March. "That's mainly because of the improved program, the new ship, and we've increased our marketing a lot to the destination."
Uniworld has contracted its own deck on the new Century ships, and Uniworld passengers will have access to the executive-level amenities.
And while the Yangtze accounts for only about 5% of Uniworld's overall business, Young said that as it continues to rebound, it remains an important market for river cruise clients seeking new destinations. He said Uniworld's goal is to double the China business in the next two to three years.
"And we think with the new ships we can do it," Young said.
Viking River Cruises has been selling the Yangtze since 2004, always chartering ships from Century. For 2013, Viking is chartering the 264-passenger Century Emerald, built in 2010, and Viking reports that bookings are up 15% over 2012.
"The ships have gotten progressively better," said Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking, about the ever-improving hardware in China.
The dam's pros and cons
One of the challenges river cruise lines on the Yangtze River have faced in the aftermath of the completion of the Three Gorges Dam project has been combating negative perceptions about the flood waters' impact on the scenery, the experience and on Chinese society.
An engineering marvel, the dam is as controversial as it is impressive. At 7,660 feet long and 600 feet high, it is the world's largest hydroelectric plant. But its installment caused hundreds of square miles of land along the river to be flooded, submerging entire cities and displacing 1.3 million people.
In addition, the flooding changed the landscape. The water level, for example, is higher up on the famous Three Gorges, which means they no longer soar as high above the passing ships as they did in the past.
But river cruise operators on the Yangtze insist that the benefits for navigation and tourism outweigh the drawbacks.
"The increased water level allows us to navigate the river more efficiently with fewer service interruptions and a multitude of new options for shore excursions," Greenman said.
Greenman noted that with higher waters, Victoria vessels can now travel farther along some of the Yangtze's tributaries. Additionally, prior to the dam, Victoria did not take passengers to White Emperor City, a site on Baidi Mountain, because the journey involved climbing many steps and was deemed too difficult for passengers. But now the company stops there because the higher water has resulted in fewer steps to climb.
In fact, for many tourists, the dam and all the intrigue surrounding it have themselves become part of the attraction of cruising the Yangtze.
"While the dam has inundated some areas we previously visited, it has allowed us to explore more of the lesser Three Gorges, for example," Marnell said. "Going through the dam is still one of the most thrilling experiences on the cruise."
A defining feature of the dam is a five-step ship lock that carries vessels 370 feet up or down through the graduated locks. It takes about two hours and 40 minutes to pass through the lock system. There is also a 370-foot-high shiplift that can carry 3,000-ton vessels in about 30 minutes.
Cruising the Yangtze today is as much about witnessing this engineering feat and about visiting the cities that have cropped up along the newly defined riverbanks as it is about trying to see the Yangtze of Chinese legend.
Greenman said the dam amplified the contrast between the ancient and the modern.
"While the Yangtze River retains much of the traditional scenic beauty of days past," he said, "we now have pockets of development which provide an interesting contrast between the simple life that is still very much a part of China's majestic countryside and the modernization which is taking place in the larger cities."
The Yangtze's future
Visitors will have to decide for themselves whether the changes the river is undergoing are for better or worse, but operators that sell the river are still pushing to continue to improve and diversify the experience for passengers.
And the passengers themselves are becoming more diverse. River cruise lines are seeing growing interest in the Yangtze cruise experience from China's burgeoning domestic travel market. So, as the lines continue to evolve their product, they are also looking for ways to balance a mix of languages and cultures onboard their vessels.
The "Chinese domestic market is going up for sure, especially in the past three years," Richard Xie, director of marketing and sales for Century, wrote in an email.
Victoria, too, is having to find a balance between East and West.
"While Victoria Cruises' Yangtze River experience was initially created with the Western market in mind, we've recently taken on a larger share of Chinese nationals who were able to explore their own country's heritage for the first time as a result of China's growing middle class," a Victoria representative stated in an email.
According to Victoria, at the height of the global economic crisis, more than 50% of passengers aboard its Yangtze River vessels were Chinese. Though the ratio has shifted back considerably since then, Victoria, along with other Yangtze operators such as Century, are having to learn how to make their product work for a melting-pot clientele. For one thing, the language differences have resulted in different shore excursion groups for passengers from different origin markets. And all announcements must be made in English and Chinese.
On the other hand, the Victoria representative said, "We found that the introduction of Chinese passengers actually added to the authenticity of the experience. Many of our Western passengers enjoyed meeting and mingling with their Chinese counterparts."
Additionally, companies on the Yangtze are clearly looking for more ways to diversify their offerings and to sell new and different options along the river to passengers, irrespective of origin.
"We have made the program somewhat more flexible to allow people more choices," Marnell said, adding that Viking has recently created a Shanghai extension and has a popular Tibet itinerary that passengers can tack on to a river cruise.
Victoria Cruises recently offered passengers the opportunity to explore a new tributary of the Yangtze, Shennong Stream, which is flanked by cliffs that passengers weave between on traditional sampans.
Marnell said, "For 2014, we are working on creating more experiences that show our guests the real China and provide privileged-access visits to such highlights as the Xian warriors and the Forbidden City. Evening visits in Beijing and Shanghai will show our guests places beyond the obvious, such as the night market in Shanghai and the Houhai Lake area of Beijing."
But as the companies push to steadily improve the product, both onboard and on shore, one thing that remains a logistical challenge and that is beyond the control of the lines is the condition of the docks. They vary significantly from one port to the next, and they are rarely on par with the increasingly high quality of the cruising experience itself.
"On the Yangtze River, the pier conditions need to improve," said Century Cruises President Peng Jian Hu.
Peng said that until recently, the Chinese government did not pay much attention to tourism improvement projects. But Peng, who is a member of the Chongqing region's local congress, said he has submitted a proposal to improve the piers, and his proposal is finally finding some traction within the local government.
"So, the Yangtze River will be better and better in the future," he said confidently. "I believe more people will want to come. This is a big market."
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.
Correction: The following quote was said by Richard Marnell of Viking River Cruises: “For 2014, we are working on creating more experiences that show our guests the ‘real China’ and provide privileged access visits to such highlights as the Xian warriors and the Forbidden City. Evening visits in Beijing and Shanghai will show our guests places beyond the obvious, such as the night market in Shanghai and the Houhai Lake area of Beijing." An earlier version of this report mistakenly attributed the quote to Larry Greenman of Victoria Cruises.