In the Chinese port city of Shanghai, a glass building shaped like a water drop looks over the Huangpu River. It's a new terminal for cruise ships — only some are unable to reach it.
"There's a little bit of a challenge, because one of our ships cannot fit under the bridge," says Karen Mann, director of international sales at the luxury cruise line, Crystal Cruises.
She is referring to the Yangpu Bridge, which is so low that many larger cruise ships can't fit under it to reach the terminal.
"If you're too high, you can't get through," Mann says, "so I think that could deter some of the cruise lines from getting to this terminal."
The Yangpu Bridge — built in 1993 — is just 165 feet above the water. That means almost one-third of the world's cruise ships can't fit under it, according to one estimate in industry magazine Seatrade Cruise Review. Even for those that can fit under — those less than 87,000 tons — it's not easy.
"One of our cruise liners sailed under the bridge — a 76,000 ton ship," says Michael Goh of Star Cruises. "With that, you have to do a lot of preparation work, study of the tide — to ensure that it is absolutely 100 percent safe to bring the ships in. With that, you have to spend a lot of resources — a lot of money to do a lot of studies and things like that."
As the international cruising companies hold their first conference at the new cruise terminal, finished in August at a cost of $260 million, there's praise for the terminal's modernity and its environmental friendliness. But it is clear the bridge is a problem.
Today's trend is towards bigger and bigger super cruisers, so as time goes on, the problems caused by the low bridge will get worse. Two-thirds of cruise ships currently being built will be too big to get under the bridge. So how did this oversight happen?
"They started building this project without thinking it through carefully," says Liu Changshou, a retired engineer who has blogged about the botched decision. He says the city government should have known better, and he accuses the lower-level district government of ulterior motives in lobbying hard for the terminal.
"By building this center, they could attract cruise companies to develop the land," Liu says. "They're using the project to gain all kinds of municipal government support. So what they're doing is developing their own real estate."
At a signing ceremony at the new terminal, presided over by the chairman of Shanghai International Port Group, which oversees all of Shanghai's terminals, the chairman wasn't available for comment. But in an earlier interview with an industry magazine, he said cruise lines were unlikely to send bigger ships to Shanghai anyway, as that market is in its infancy.
But major international companies, like Royal Caribbean, are suffering. Senior Vice President Michael Bayley said that earlier this year one of its ships had to unload passengers at another terminal, farther out from central Shanghai.
"It's quite a problem for us," Bayley says. "We'd like the bridge lifted by about 50 feet if we could. The Chinese are capable of almost anything in construction and engineering. If they built the Three Gorges Dam, I'm sure they could lift a bridge, don't you think?"
But that isn't in the cards at the moment. As China's urban development proceeds at warp speed and with no public consultation, this type of anomaly is not unusual. Many smaller cities have built high-tech development zones that now stand half-empty. And this multimillion-dollar terminal now stands as a monument to a system where narrow, local interests often dominate over common sense.