Early this past month, China was rocked by a 7.9 magnitude quake that struck the southwestern region of Sichuan and the city of Chengdu. The death toll is a reported 55,000, a figure that continues to rise daily as rubble is cleared and more victims are discovered. The quake comes on the heels of disturbances in Tibet, and less than three months before the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics.
Victoria Cruises, a cruise company sailing China’s Yangtze River, immediately stepped up to the plate to assist humanitarian relief efforts, donating excess inventory and supplies, including much-needed clothing, towels and drinking water.
Dale and Donna Murphy were 6 miles from the epicenter when the earthquake hit; days later they continued with their Yangtze cruise on Victoria Empress
“Tibet and the earthquake have made it a challenging year for the China travel market,” says Jerry Pi, operating partner for Victoria Cruises. “It’s been even further complicated by upcoming Summer Olympics in Beijing.” In Pi’s experience, travel agents aren’t seeing the Olympics as a plus, although he predicts that the benefits will generally be felt in the months to come. He also notes that summer travel to China will be affected by the closing of Tibet and the Panda Reserve.
As far as pre- and post-Olympics bookings for Victoria Cruises, tour operators have found it difficult to find the hotel rooms they need, since many hotels are charging Western rates in Beijing during August. “This doesn’t work for tour operators,” says Pi. “It’s the same with air space. Carriers wouldn’t release their blocks for tour operators. The situation is similar to that of traveling during Thanksgiving in the states, when demand is at its highest.”
Pi observes that high fuel prices and the recession are causing Americans to cut back on travel this summer, and opt for local rather than long-haul trips. Luckily for Victoria Cruises, they’re picking up business from other markets. “There’s enhanced purchasing power from around the world, especially in Europe and Asia,” says Pi. “We see a huge growth in the Asian market—they have the disposable income to travel.
Fall is a very busy time for Victoria Cruises; September through November is the company's prime season.
“A lot of travelers postponed travel to Tibet and we anticipate pent-up demand. If they can’t get a fall booking, they’ll look at traveling March to June,” says Pi. “Those months are already looking very strong for us.”
Victoria Cruises has been part of the relief effort and in the days to come will spearhead the rebuilding of two schools. The company is also exploring the possibilities of donating a portion of each booking to the earthquake relief fund.
“We’ve had minimal disruption as a result of the earthquake,” says Richard Marnell, senior vice president of marketing for Viking River Cruises. Passengers are still traveling, and over the last seven days we’ve seen demand pick up for fall 2008 and into 2009.” Marnell notes that Viking River Cruises has also faced little difficulties booking seats and rooms as a result of the Beijing Summer Olympics, since August is a relatively slow month for the company, due to the hot weather.
Ritz Tours, a U.S.-based tour company, reports that the recent earthquake in China had no impact on their operation of tours throughout the country as well as cruises along the Yangtze River. “All of our passengers and personnel in China are safe and were not impacted by the earthquake,” Our tours are not going into the epicenter areas impacted by the earthquake and therefore everything is operating on schedule,” says Martin Chan, founder and president of Ritz Tours.
“After the earthquake, we received phone calls from people concerned about traveling to China, but we haven’t had any cancellations,” says Hunter Wang, CEO of Panda Travel USA. Wang notes that the seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Chengdu/Sichuan Province area affected by the earthquake remain unharmed.
This month, Panda Travel USA has tourist groups traveling on a Mongolia/Beijing tour and a Xian/Beijing/Yangtze River program “They’ve been undeterred by the earthquake,” says Wang. “The excellent response that the Chinese government made in the aftermath of the earthquake inspires confidence in the traveler. Although the earthquake has a psychological ripple effect, I believe that travel to China will return to normal in the next six months, if not sooner.”