As demand continues to rise for bigger cabins and more amenities in river and small-ship cruising, two companies focused on China are for the first time in years introducing luxurious new ships to the Yangtze.
Victoria Cruises recently announced it would launch what it says will be the biggest river ship in the world on May 18. The seven-deck Victoria Sabrina will be the American-managed cruise line's first new ship in the China market in 10 years and its most extravagant, company officials said.
"This is definitely going to be our flagship ship," said Tom Antonucci, sales director at Victoria.
Century Cruises launched the Century Glory in September; the seven-deck ship is just a meter or so smaller than the Victoria Sabrina. Century said it has plans to add four more ships by 2023, including two next year.
The Chinese company is also opening a sales office in Los Angeles to expand its North American sales and marketing efforts, said deputy general manager Richard Xie. At that same time, he said, the company is exploring opportunities on other rivers, including the Mississippi.
While European river operators have been steadily adding ships every year, Victoria and Century have focused more on updating and refurbishing their existing Yangtze inventory.
Xie said the Glory was his company's first new ship on the river in six years and added that the line will look to retire some of its older vessels.
"Cruise lovers always love the new ships," he said. "And for any ships built before 2010, they are pretty much out of date."
Larry Greenman, manager of public relations and customer service for Victoria Cruise Lines, said it, too, has a few more ships on the drawing board but is not sure when they will launch.
"I think the Victoria Sabrina will hold us for now," he said.
The lines' new, larger ships are the first to take full advantage of higher water levels on the river since the Three Gorges Dam was completed some 10 years ago, creating a large lake and much larger tributaries. They also aim to meet the growing demand not only for larger, more luxurious cabins but also for more amenities.
The Century Glory can carry 650 passengers. The Victoria Sabrina is expected to have a capacity of about 600, although the cabin count hasn't been finalized. That's much larger than Victoria's current largest ship, the Victoria Jenna, which has 189 cabins and a passenger capacity of 378, and nearly four times larger than its first ship, which launched in 1994 with 77 cabins and a capacity of 154 passengers.
Victoria's first vessel "was a small, intimate ship," Greenman said. "These days bigger is perceived as better."
Xie agreed. "Cruisers are looking for luxury and space," he said.
Accommodations on the Victoria Sabrina will include 275-square-foot Superior Staterooms with private balconies, 375-square-foot Executive Suites with VIP perks and 915-square-foot Shangri-La Suites with 1,320-square-foot balconies.
The Century Glory, meanwhile, has eight types of cabins and suites, ranging in size from 280 to 915 square feet. Public areas include the Grand Atrium lobby, bar, observation lounge, sun deck bar, two dining rooms, gym, self-service laundry and convenience store. The vessel will feature new technologies such as electronic propulsion, a rudder propeller and low-emission systems.
Besides more cabins and dining and bar options, both new ships will have movie theaters.
Antonucci said the Victoria Sabrina will also have a larger spa and beauty salon area with more treatment rooms than its other ships. There will also be a VIP lounge, accessible only to suite passengers, as well as more places for groups.
"We have a lot of alumni associations onboard, different groups that like their own public areas," Greenman said. "The larger vessels can accommodate something separate … and give the clients something they are asking for."
The new ships are also much more ecofriendly, featuring energy-efficient propulsion technologies to reduce pollution.
In addition to adding ships, Xie said Century is looking to sail to new sections of the Yangtze.
"We don't want our cruise ships confined to the Three Gorges," he said, noting that while the company currently sails longer stretches than most, "we would like to expand our business along the whole length of the Yangtze River."