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Setting sail along the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road route

Xing Yi and Erik Nilsson
Updated: Apr 20,2015 3:20 PM     China Daily

Coconut Princess is now the only cruise liner to reach the Xisha Islands. It has made more than 40 journeys, carrying 6,000 travelers to Xisha since its maiden voyage in April 2013.[Photo/China Daily]

The Xisha Islands will soon be offered to more cruise passengers following the popularity of the Coconut Princess cruise liner’s new 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road route to the archipelago.

“Demand for Xisha Islands visits generally outstrips supply,” Hainan Daily quoted Sansha city Mayor Xiao Jie as saying during the two sessions in March.

Sansha administers the roughly three-dozen islands off Hainan province’s coast. “We’re planning to launch more routes and options this year.”

The cruise has been rerouted and, since Feb 7, re-branded as a Maritime Silk Road excursion, because more cruise companies are hopping aboard the concept of creating modern tours along the ancient sea routes.

The re-branding of the Coconut Princess came two days after the much talked about Feb 5 maiden voyage of the Beibu Gulf Star, which media hailed as China’s “first Maritime Silk Road cruise liner”.

The Beibu Gulf Star departs from Beihai Port in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region’s capital, Nanning.

It spends nine days traveling to Vietnam’s Da Nang and Nha Trang; the Gulf of Thailand; and Malaysia’s Genting, Redang-known for ancient settlements and modern resorts-and, finally, Kuantan Port.

Traditional Silk Road land tours are also adding cruises to their offerings, such as China International Travel Service’s Ancient Silk Road Tour with Yangtze Cruise package.

The 18-day trip takes guests to the ancient route’s mostly upcountry destinations of Beijing, Shanghai, Shaanxi’s provincial capital Xi’an and Guangxi’s Guilin before putting them aboard a Three Gorges cruise.

The Coconut Princess route is one of seven Silk Road Maritime cruises the Hainan Tourism Development Commission simultaneously announced.

“Hainan is an important Maritime Silk Road link,” commission director Lu Zhiyuan said at the opening ceremony.

It seems likely Maritime Silk Road cruises will proliferate along China’s coasts this year, because the China National Tourism Administration has declared 2015 the Year of Silk Road Tourism.

Asian locations remain the principal destinations for outbound Chinese.

Cruises are gaining popularity in China. Industry insiders expect more than 1 million Chinese will take cruises this year.

Guangxi’s deputy governor hailed the Beibu Gulf Star route as a “milestone” in cooperation and connectivity between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The only way to reach the Xisha Islands aside from aboard Coconut Princess is on supply vessels.

“When I heard there’s a cruise to the Xisha Islands, I immediately amended my plans to travel to Hainan,” says Cai Cai, a native of Zhejiang’s provincial capital Hangzhou who took the voyage a day after it was formally launched.

“My friends had visited the islands but traveled via uncomfortable supply vessels. They were seasick.”

Coconut Princess has made more than 40 journeys, carrying 6,000 travelers to Xisha since its maiden voyage in April 2013. The vessel was a passenger ship that traveled between Guangdong province and Hainan before it was retrofitted as a cruise liner.

The cruise is more expensive and less modern than most. But its route’s exclusivity tempts travelers to cough up cash for one of the 200 beds. High demand makes getting tickets tricky.

Several agencies offer bookings. It costs about 4,000 yuan ($640) for a bunk in an eight-person cabin and 12,000 yuan for a bed in a two-person deluxe cabin.

Cai called several travel agencies before securing a bed in a six-person cabin from China International Travel Service for 6,000 yuan for three nights. She feels it was worth it for a one-of-a-kind experience.

The Xisha group comprises one of Hainan’s four major outlying island bodies. It hosts about 130 small coral islets and reefs about 180 nautical miles southeast of Hainan’s main island.

The route previously started in Hainan’s capital, Haikou, but changed last September to set out from the Phoenix Island International Cruise Terminal in the southern city of Sanya. This gives guests more time to explore the islets the route visits.

Cai’s voyage set off on Feb 8. It anchored near the islands during the second day’s early morning.

“We watched sunrise from the deck,” Cai says.

“We spent the next two days exploring the three islets aboard small boats. It takes half an hour to circumnavigate each. They’re small.

“You can snorkel and fish. But I most enjoyed the sea views and daydreaming on the beaches.”

Dining and sleeping on the islands are prohibited. Tourists must board the Coconut Princess for lunch, dinner and bedtime. But the cruise offers many activities, including local cultural performances, lectures about Xisha, film screenings and cocktail parties.

The Coconut Princess trip is available at present only to Chinese citizens.