Operators: raising the bar on the Yangtze

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Yangtze River cruise ships

Orient Royal Line

" East King, 196 passengers

" East Queen, 196 passengers

Victoria Cruises

" Victoria Empress, 198 passengers

" Victoria Katarina, 266 passengers

" Victoria Prince, 206 passengers

" Victoria Queen, 206 passengers

" Victoria Rose, 130 passengers

" Victoria Star, 206 passengers

Viking River Cruises

" Viking Star, 180 passengers

" Viking Century Sky, 306 passengers

" Viking Century Sun, 306 passengers (2006)

Few products in the modern travel industry have undergone more radical changes in recent years than the Yangtze River cruise, a reflection of the changes sweeping China generally and the Yangtze specifically. The Three Gorges Dam is creating an impoundment that will forever alter the 400-mile region between Yichang and Chongqing, where most Yangtze cruise ships operate.

But mans makeover of the landscape is only one of the many changes that Yangtze cruise operators have weathered over the last decade. Certainty is not the lot of a Yangtze cruise operator.

Victoria Cruises, the largest operator on the Yangtze with 1,212 berths on a half-dozen ships, has been riding the current for a decade through boom and bust cycles. The market grew steadily in the 1990s, only to be broadsided by 9/11 and SARS. Victoria started in 1994 with one ship, grew to 11 ships in 2002, then traded them in for six newer, larger and more luxurious vessels.

The company gained market share when its top competitor, Regal China Cruises, collapsed, but opportunities in China are like opportunities everywhere else -- they attract competitors.

China Regal Cruises, an operator of Yangtze River cruises, is in full operation and is not to be confused with Regal China Cruises, a management company that marketed Yangtze River voyages previous to October 2002, when it ceased operating after a dispute with the owner of the ships it marketed, Nantong Lihui International Co. The ships formerly marketed by Regal China Cruises are now marketed by China Regal Cruises.

Viking River Cruises, a leader in European river cruising, was able to leverage its marketing organization and its tour operator partnerships in Europe to create a strong presence in the Yangtze market in 2004, its first year on the river. It entered the market with one 180-passenger ship, and it is introducing a 306-passenger ship this year and another in 2006, which will bring its total number of beds to 792.

Operators like the competition.

Scott Supernaw, vice president of sales and marketing for Tauck World Discovery, said, The competition with other riverboats coming in has improved substantially. Viking is certainly going to have an impact.

For Viking President Jeff Dash, its a matter of raising the bar. We wanted to create a product up to our standards, he said. Were not trying to dominate the market. Were more excited about promoting and building the destination. My hope is whatever were doing will raise the bar. China should have a better product.

Victoria, for its part, sees itself as the operator that really knows the ropes. With 10 years in the market, Victoria has relationships that go back to its beginning.

James Pi, the companys owner, is a Chinese-American who was born in Shanghai. He has earned degrees in navigation and shipping management.

Pi agrees that standards on the Yangtze continue to climb. The industry has to make changes for the customer, he said. And the customer wants things better and better.

Victoria used the downturn during the SARS episode to reposition itself and upgrade its fleet, which now includes four ships with five-star ratings from the China National Tourist Administration and two in the four-star category.

Although the dam is transforming the region, a couple of hundred feet does not cut far into the height of the massive peaks that line the river in the Three Gorges region.

Most visitors agree that the Yangtze has lost little as a tourist attraction and, in fact, has gained in some ways.

Side excursions up the Yangtze tributaries, for example, can now utilize larger, more comfortable boats and go farther upstream.

The gorges are no less gorgeous than before. Parts of the river that have grown into a lake offer stunning landscapes in their own right. And the dam, the reason for it all, is itself a major tourist attraction.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see Ever-changing China is full of opportunity.

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