China ship disaster: Why retirees take 'red setting sun' cruises

Chinese retirees are increasingly targeted as tourists on cheap but highly prized visits to sites like the Three Gorges Dam. 

Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP
Hopes dimmed Wednesday for rescuing more than 400 people still trapped in the capsized river cruise ship that overturned on the Yangtze River on Monday.

The freak storm that sank a Yangtze river cruise ship on Monday night, apparently claiming more than 400 lives, may have been unusual. But the type of passenger boat that was upended is a common sight, plying China’s longest river.

A cruise on the Yangtze river, with a visit to the Three Gorges Dam as a highlight, is popular with Chinese tourists, especially older people. Retirees made up nearly 90 percent of the passengers on the ill- fated Oriental Star, according to the manifest. More than 400 of the 458 passengers and crew aboard are missing.

The state-owned travel agency that organized the 10-day cruise, Xiehe, marketed the travel experience specifically for older people. The company branded the holiday a “red setting sun” trip, a reference to retirement. The cruise cost about $160, a senior-friendly price, and there were special discounts for passengers over 60.

At that price, accommodation was basic. A standard cruise ship such as the Oriental Star, of which there are more than 100, pack up to eight passengers into each third class cabin, according to Wang Cheng, a sales agent for a cruise company based in Chongqing, the stricken vessel’s destination.

As in many parts of the world, cruise organizers are now building even more luxurious boats to test more affluent markets, according to industry sources. Nearly 30 five-star vessels – some equipped with gymnasiums, swimming pools, and cigar lounges – take visitors from Chongqing to the Three Gorges Dam. Other such ships ply the waters below the lower Yangtze dam, which flow to Shanghai.

Chongqing-based boats carried nearly 600,000 passengers last year, according to a recent report in the Chongqing Business Daily. Most of them were middle-aged tourists and seniors, the paper said.

But the rapid increase of high-end ships, encouraged by government subsidies, has outstripped demand, partly because the government’s austerity and anti-corruption drives have reduced the number of tour groups paid for by local governments.

Beijing has set considerable store by domestic tourism as authorities seek to boost local spending as a key engine of economic growth. A plan issued last year pledged official financial and other aid to double spending on tourism to $89 billion by 2020.

Older people, whose numbers are rising fast, are expected to contribute a growing share of that spending.

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