Stepping aboard the Zhiyin for a nighttime cruise almost makes time travel to China in the early 1930s possible.
While strolling the decks of the three-floor steamer, passengers can freely explore and watch any number of short scenes being played out by professional performers dressed up in period costume.
They're remarkable in both voice and expression, eager to pour out their life stories, expose love-hate relationships or boast about patriotic deeds. You can listen to their moving stories in of the ship's cabins, or watch a passionate dance in an old-fashioned bar.
Some are historical figures such as bridge engineer Mao Yisheng (1896-1989) and composer Xian Xinghai (1905-45).
Before boarding, passengers, too, can don period clothing to immerse themselves more fully into the experience.
Since debuting in May 2017, the innovative, immersive show is held from Tuesday to Sunday in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei province, along the Yangtze River.
It's a popular evening activity among both group and independent travelers who want to enjoy something a little different after a day's sightseeing.
"The Zhiyin cruise ship vividly presents the culture of Wuhan, and its continuous success has contributed to the city's nighttime tourism," says Kang Haijun, general manager of Wuhan Chaozong Culture& Tourism Co, Ltd, which operates the Zhiyin. "The show has a regular upgrade every four months to cater to the demands of tourists."
Like the Zhiyin, the development of China's nighttime tourism in recent years has provided travelers with colorful activities and aroused their interest in further exploration.
Trip.com Group's recent report about China's nighttime tourism for the first half of 2021 revealed that its users had experienced nighttime activities 1.3 times average, spending 187 yuan ($29).Sales of nighttime tickets for scenic areas and other tourism businesses increased by 106 percent over the same period in 2019.
About 34 percent of nighttime travelers were born in the 1990s, 29 percent were born in the 1980s, and 12 percent were born in the 2000s.
According to a report released by Chinese tourism website Mafengwo, over 61 percent of those surveyed said that they would plan a nighttime itinerary in their trip. Most would have a night tour between and four hours in duration, and their active hours were 6 pm to midnight.
The surveyed considered safety, easy transportation and a comfortable travel experience as core factors of nighttime tourism. Most made their nighttime tourism decisions the recommendation of friends, and people sharing information social media platforms.
Like other Chinese cities, Wuhan has been striving to improve its nighttime tourism to enrich the travel experience of visitors.
Last year, the Yellow Crane Tower unveiled an immersive light show, with holographic images projected the surfaces of the ancient architecture, like pavilions, terraces and towers, to explain the history of the area.
Visitors can rent traditional costumes and walk around to view the light shows from different spots, with beautiful reflections of the buildings water.
They can experience Wuhan's port-city culture, which originates from the 19th century, by hopping aboard a boat tour along the Yangtze River, either during the day or after dark.
The short cruise takes them to local scenic areas and they can watch a light show along the banks of the river at the end of the trip, while enjoying the view of buildings old and new, they can also sample a delicious buffet board.
"The boom in nighttime tourism has made the market more competitive, thus pushing scenic areas and destinations to put more effort into enhancing their offerings, innovation and service and enriching product content," says Liao Chengzhi, marketing director of Wuhan Liji Ferry Group, which operates the tour cruise.
Night tours at some scenic areas provide a different experience compared to that of a daytime visit.
At the Master-of-Nets Garden (Wangshiyuan) in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, classic arias of pingtan (storytelling with music and singing in the Suzhou dialect) and Kunqu Opera are performed at night for tourists. Some images and lyrics are projected buildings, to create an artistic atmosphere.
During a guided 50-minute tour, visitors will watch various performances in different yards that appeal to both refined and popular tastes, such as the Chinese stringed instruments of erhu and guzheng.
Portable lights emphasize traditional Chinese aesthetics in the architecture and landscape.
Zheng Fang, chief inspector of marketing, Haichang Ocean Park Holdings Ltd, says that it offers innovative nighttime tour products and has just upgraded them with Trip.com Group.
During a two-day tour package in Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, tourists can learn about marine animals, such as sharks and mantas, via a guided tour, and observe penguins closely through glass while dining in a restaurant.
At night, they can pitch their own tent at the venue in front of a giant aquarium and spend the night with the marine animals.
She says the nighttime experience has a limit the number of visitors, and their professional team ensures that such programs won't affect the biological clocks of the animals.
"The nighttime economy has become a new growth point for offline consumption in the post COVID-19 era. Nighttime culture and tourism activities are an important role that drives the nighttime economy," she says.
She believes that immersive experiences and light shows that combine technology with art and design, such as the drone performances that use the devices to create different images in the sky, are a new trend in nighttime tourism.
"Nighttime tourism in China has emerged in recent years, with more nighttime performances, food courts and cruises springing up across the country. Nighttime tourism has expanded the business hours of tourism resources and offered more possibilities for the development of the tourism industry," says Feng Rao, head of tourism research at Mafengwo.
"The current nighttime tourism activities are mainly light shows, large-scale performances and nighttime cruises, which are homogenized. With the demand of tourists becoming increasingly more personalized and diversified, the nighttime tourism market in China has more room for improvement," he says.