For those who feel that simply visiting China has lost an exotic ring, the increase in cruises available to the Middle Kingdom should make getting there half of the allure.
Before last June, China was only included as a brief stop on a round-the-world cruise. Now it is possible to forgo the world and concentrate on China. Last summer, Pearl Cruises of Scandinavia and China Cruises were the pioneering operators to offer special package tours that call on several Chinese ports. They were joined in April by the Royal Viking Line.
Cruising was never intended for the budget-minded, and these tours are no exception. It is possible to travel inexpensively by China Travel Service's hovercraft to Guangzhou (Canton) or by China merchants steam navigation's ship to Shanghai. But once you've landed you're on your own, and that can be difficult in a country like China, where regulations are purposefully designed to discourage the lone traveler.
Business during the first season last year was slow for the specialty cruises to China. Some travel executives say it was because of the worldwide recession, while others say it was because the tours were not well known. Already there have been two business casualties, Ming Hua Friendship Cruises and Flavian Shipping. Spokesmen from Pearl Cruises and China Cruises admit that travel agents and travel writers largely made up their 80 percent occupancy for the first year. But operators remain optimistic.
''So many people have done the Caribbean before and they want something different. China is a new frontier,'' said C. H. Lai, vice-president of Salen Cruising Ltd., the company that operates China Cruises. ''The new frontier'' seems to be a common theme among travel executives when describing China. But they aren't just using the term in a figurative sense. With very few exceptions, accommodations and transportation range from the very basic to poor.
When China first opened its doors to tourists in 1978, it was ill-equipped to handle the flood of visitors. On Feb. 28 the director general of China's National Tourism Administration, Han Kehua, told nearly 1,000 delegates from 45 countries to China's first international tourism conference that ''service quality is still far behind the standard of the developed nations.'' He also said that improvements are being planned in hotel renovation and construction, employee training, and the advance reservation system.
Cruise operators see this present lack of services as a plus in their marketing strategy. Their clients can go sightseeing, but still have the ship's accommodations, which are far more luxurious than what is available locally.
According to Peter Cox, manager of operations at Pearl Cruises, ''many people have heard that travel in China is strenuous. They prefer to see the highlights and have their home-away-from-home waiting for them at the end of the day.''
Comfort is the name of the China cruising game, since, like most other cruises, the clientele tends to be in the 50-to-70 age group, these being the travelers who can best afford the time and the expense.
According to Mr. Lai, the Chinese are happy to have the expanded cruise itineraries, since China welcomes the hard currency brought in by tourists, but ''they (the Chinese) realize that they can't offer the luxury that foreigners would like to have.'' Practical information:
Cruise lines that specialize in China are listed below. All of them arrange for the necessary visas to travel in China. Since individual visas are difficult to obtain, passengers are visaed on a group manifest. Pearl Cruises and Royal Viking do not allow independent travel, while China Cruises will attempt to secure individual visas for independent travel. Accommodations, transportation, and tour guides for all land excursions mentioned in the itineraries are included in the price. The Peking leg includes a visit to the Great Wall. The tour season is generally between April and November. Travel agents can provide the departure dates.
China Cruises, a joint venture between the Salen group of Sweden and Hang Wai , a Hong Kong affiliate of the China Ocean Shipping Company, offers a 14-day tour. The northbound cruise begins in Hong Kong. The 200-passenger ship then goes to Xiamen, Shanghai (includes a train trip to Suzhou), and then up the Yangtze River to Nanjing. Passengers then fly to Peking for sightseeing and transfer to the airport for their return flight home. Passengers may also join the cruise in Peking for its southbound run. China Cruises is the only company with the rights to carry foreign tourists up the Yangtze. Prices range from $1, 990 to $7,940. International air fare to or from Hong Kong or Peking (depending on where you begin the tour) is not included.
Pearl Cruises of Scandinavia is a joint venture involving I. Skaugen of Norway and J. Lauritzen of Denmark. The 450-passenger cruiser starts its 16-day northbound tour in Hong Kong and then goes to Shanghai (includes a land excursion to Peking); Dalian; Pusan, South Korea (includes a land excursion to Kyongju); and the inland sea of Japan, and it ends in Kobe, Japan. The southbound tour sails from Kobe, making all the stops, and arrives in Hong Kong. One optional overland tour in China includes going to Xian and Peking from Shanghai and rejoining the cruise in Tianjin. The prices range from $3,370 to $8 ,550 and include round-trip air fare from San Francisco or Los Angeles. The China ports are also included in 30- or 44-day Asian cruise packages.
Royal Viking Line began its first extensive China cruise in April, and has three more scheduled for September and October aboard the Royal Viking Star. The 725-passenger ship begins in either Kobe or Hong Kong, and destinations include Shanghai (also a shore excursion to Suzhou or Wuxi); Dalian; Hsingang (includes shore excursion to Peking and Tianjin); Nagasaki, Japan; Kagoshima, inland sea of Japan; and Kobe. Prices range from $3277 to $10137. International air fare is not included.
Lindblad Travel, Inc. offers cruises on China's Yangtze Kiang aboard the 36 -passenger Kun Lun, a 277-foot riverboat. The Kun Lun, built in 1962, originally entertained ministers of state, visiting heads of state, and other foreign dignitaries. Passengers are accommodated in 18 twin-bed cabins with private facilities. Open seating for meals is standard, with Western breakfasts and Chinese lunches and dinners. There are two cruises planned in September, two in October, and one in November. Prices begin at $5900 per person, double occupancy. Air fare is not included. For more information contact Lindblad Travel, Inc., 8 Wright St., Westport CT 06880.