Se­nior travel booms in China, with Yangtze a popular spot


When Li Cao­hua re­tired in her late 50s, the doc­tor im­me­di­ately joined mil­lions of other Chi­nese se­niors and hit the road to see more of her gi­ant coun­try.

At the top of her des­ti­na­tion list was trop­i­cal Hainan is­land in the south and the an­cient vil­lages around her home city of Bei­jing. Then there was the most grandiose of China’s land­scapes — the mythic brown wa­ters of the Yangtze River and its mis­ten­veloped Three Gorges.

Over the decades, Li sur­vived such hor­rors of 20th cen­tury Chi­nese his­tory as the man­made famines that killed more than 30 mil­lion peo­ple in the late 1950s and the po­lit­i­cal an­ar­chy of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion that fol­lowed. Now, as she and hun­dreds of other se­niors danced, played cards and chat­ted Thurs­day in the wind­ing walk­ways of Bei­jing’s Tem­ple of Heaven, Li said it was her time to play.

“We are for­tu­nate in China that we can travel, and I’ve seen so much,” the 60-year-old woman said. “We’re all trav­el­ing now to a lot of places.”

Travel agen­cies and packages cater­ing to el­derly Chi­nese say busi­ness is boom­ing, amid over­all growth in the coun­try’s travel in­dus­try. The num­ber of se­nior tourists in China jumped by 58 per­cent last year com­pared to 2013, ac­cord­ing to the state-run China Daily news­pa­per, and 62 per­cent of Chi­nese se­nior cit­i­zens join or­ga­nized tours.

One such tour ended trag­i­cally Mon­day night when a river cruiser car­ry­ing more than 450 peo­ple, mostly el­derly tourists, cap­sized in a heavy storm in the Yangtze. By Satur­day, nearly 400 have been con­firmed dead, mak­ing the cap­siz­ing the dead­li­est mar­itime tragedy to hit China since the coun­try’s civil war seven decades ear­lier.

The tour was or­ga­nized by the Shang­hai Xiehe Tourism Agency, with the ship run by the sta­te­owned Chongqing Eastern Ship­ping Corp., which spe­cial­izes in Yangtze River travel. The ship, the Eastern Star, was ply­ing the river up­stream from Nan­jing near the eastern coast all the way in­land to Chongqing, a trip of 10 days and about 870 miles ( 1,400 kilo­me­ters).

There are many ver­sions of se­nior- friendly trips de­signed for dif­fer­ent in­come groups, with some low- cost op­tions charg­ing 3,000 yuan, or about US$ 480, for five days on Hainan is­land, not in­clud­ing air­fare, said Bei­jing travel agent Qi Chun Guan. For Yangtze River travel, most groups fly into the me­trop­o­lis of Chongqing and then travel down­stream to the city of Yichang, Qi said.

“Be­fore, the el­derly saved all their money,” Qi said. “Now, they want to go out and see the rest of the world. Th­ese peo­ple have seen their share of suf­fer­ing in their lives. Now, with eco­nomic devel­op­ment, it’s so dif­fer­ent from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.”

The boom in travel has been one eco­nomic bright spot to a gray­ing pop­u­la­tion that’s pre­sent­ing China with one of its most se­ri­ous pol­icy chal­lenges.

Go­ing out to See the World

With U.N. data show­ing the num­ber of Chi­nese over age 65 pro­jected to al­most dou­ble to 210 mil­lion peo­ple by 2030, the coun­try’s re­tire­ment sys­tem will strug­gle to keep up, es­pe­cially as China’s one-child pol­icy lim­its the num­ber of work­ing-age peo­ple who can pay for the pen­sions and mea­ger benefits of their el­ders, said Yong Cai, an as­sis­tant so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“It’s very clear that the next 10 to 15 years down the road will not be so good for the pen­sion sys­tem,” Yong said. “Xi Jin­ping has been say­ing China has to deal with the new eco­nomic re­al­ity and part of this is a new de­mo­graphic re­al­ity.”

For mid­dle-class se­niors, how­ever, comes strength in num­bers, Qi said. El­derly women known as “danc­ing grannies” fill the parks of many cities with their mu­sic and dance rou­tines. Enor­mous groups of se­niors are also regular sights at Chi­nese tourist at­trac­tions such as Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City.

Among the most popular do­mes­tic des­ti­na­tions for el­derly Chi­nese are the south­east­ern coastal prov­ince of Fu­jian and cen­tral Sichuan prov­ince, where the Eastern Star cruise ship was headed Mon­day when it over­turned, Qi said.

He said travel along the Yangtze has fallen since the world’s big­gest hy­dro­elec­tric project, the Three Gorges Dam, opened in 2012 and flooded his­toric sites and scenic canyons.

One 55-year-old prop­erty manager, who would only iden­tify him­self by his fam­ily name of Shu, said he took two-day trips to towns around Bei­jing with other older Chi­nese, pay­ing 600 yuan, or about US$100, for each ex­cur­sion. On Thurs­day, he strolled along the Tem­ple of Heaven’s his­toric cov­ered walk­way, pro­tected from the rain and tak­ing in the fresh air, part of what he said was his semire­tired morn­ing rou­tine.

“If you have the money, you go out and play,” Shu said. “I’ve learned to like it.”


Peo­ple en­joy a 300-me­ter-long wa­ter slide dur­ing a two-day event of “Slide the City JA­PAN,” in Tokyo’s Odaiba wa­ter­front area, Satur­day, June 6.


In this photo taken Fri­day, June 5, an el­derly Chi­nese woman is pushed in a wheel­chair near the en­trance to the Tem­ple of Heaven park in Bei­jing.

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