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Arctic cruise: polar bears and caribou

LINDA Chen, 58, is currently in Svalbard, Norway, the third stop of her 12-day luxury cruise in the Arctic. Chen and her husband, both cruise lovers from Shanghai, took their first cruise in 1998, when it was almost unheard of in China.

"It was a Mediterranean trip and the ship was filled with Westerners. Everybody took us for Japanese tourists," Chen recalls.

After 2000, they started seeing more Chinese on cruises, mostly from Hong Kong and Macau.

Every year Chen and her husband take a cruise, maybe two, mostly in Europe or the Americas.

"I just love the atmosphere on board - everyone is so chilled just as in movies. There is no pressure, no worries. You are simply there to enjoy the service, the gastronomy and nature," Chen adds.

In the past three to five years, she has been joined by more visitors from the Chinese mainland. She also sees more Chinese ports as part of the itinerary, as destinations and departure ports for cruises.

In the past, Chen always had to fly to a European port to join a cruise.

Her current cruise, an escape from hot and humid Shanghai, departed from Oslo and cruised the Fjords and polar region.

"Many of my friends thought I was going crazy when I told them about this trip. They simply never thought it was possible to cruise to the polar regions and thought it would cost millions," she says.

It doesn't.

It is less expensive than Chen has expected. The trip cost around US$15,000 for both her and her husband - they have booked the equivalent of an executive suite in a hotel.

Chen has already spotted caribou and walrus and is excited about the prospect of getting close to polar bears.

There are five other Chinese on her cruise, and three of them from the same family in Sichuan Province hold Canadian passports.

The other two, a couple from Beijing, are permanent residents in Italy.

"I was quite surprised at first because it has always been inconvenient for Chinese visitors to take cruises - the visa and the language," says Chen.

Many of her friends have wanted to join her but dropped out when they learned about complicated visa procedures.

A traveler usually must get visas from all the stops on the trip in advance, which is inconvenient, especially since many have to go to Beijing for the paperwork.


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