Busses for the newlyweds, buses for the nuptial celebration

Wan Lixin
Some cities in China now offer wedding bus services as operators try to beef up their sagging bottom lines.
Wan Lixin

Wedding celebrations don't have to be static affairs. Newlyweds, friends and family can hop on a bus now to celebrate nuptials.

Bus operators in several cities across China are now offering bus wedding rentals, which are decidedly cheaper than the traditional fleet of stretch limos. And being together on a bus can add to the festive atmosphere.

It's a relatively new business that comes as bus operators are struggling to make ends meet and seeking ways to improve revenue streams through diversification.

In a recent interview with China News Weekly magazine, a bus company employee in the city of Tai'an in Shandong Province said a 25-seat electric bus, with driver, can be rented for 350 yuan (US$48) and travel up to 10 kilometers. Wedding decorations inside are left to the clients.

On the Shandong Peninsula, a bus operator in the city of Yantai offers two wedding options that both include an eight-hour service and wedding decorations. The day's outing in a standard, 30-seat bus costs 3,000 yuan; a double-decker bus, 4,000 yuan. That compares with the conventional wedding fleet of a Bentley Flying Spur and five Mercedes-Benz cars costing about 8,800 yuan for a morning's hire.

Will the idea of wedding buses catching on? The Tai'an employee said his company is getting inquiries about the new service.

In an interview with the China News Weekly, Yang Xinmiao, a transport expert from Tsinghua University, called the wedding buses a sign of social progress that reflects the originality of the younger generation.

They also reflect the changing fortunes of bus travel, which some local drivers say has suffered declining revenue in recent years, particularly since the coronavirus pandemic.

In August, mainstream bus drivers in Tai'an launched a strike over wages unpaid for over five months. Although local bus services didn't come to a complete halt, bus frequency was reduced.

Similar issues of unpaid wages have also been reported in other cities in China, including Lanzhou, Puyang and Tianjin. Moreover, in some cases, bus operators are trying to cut costs by shortchanging employees in terms of social or medical care.

Why are bus services in such disarray?

"There are all kinds of explanations: low bus fare, incessant traffic jams and poor efficiency," said Yang.

It's a comedown in a nation where annual bus passengers once hit a global high of 70 million, he said.

Some in the industry blame decreased or delayed bus subsidies from local governments. Then, too, more people in China drive their own cars, go by bike or electric bike, or take the expanding networks of urban rapid transit.

According to the Ministry of Transport, buses nationwide in the first quarter carried about 9 billion passengers, a year-on-year drop of almost 12 percent and a decline of 48 percent from the same period in 2019.

Cheng Shidong, an urban transport researcher from the National Reform and Development Commission, dismissed the idea that rising car ownership necessarily means declining bus ridership – a view supported by reports from the US and Canada. He noted that in Japan and some European countries, bus systems remain vibrant.

In addition to innovations like wedding buses, Cheng suggested that bus operators can increase revenue by opening up their recharging or refueling stations to the public at large.

However, diversification "might raise the bottom line slightly, but that won't do much without a substantial breakthrough in the core business," he said.

Bus companies should be thinking about lowering costs by operating vehicles with small passenger capacity, Yang added.

On October 9, the Transport Ministry, in conjunction with a number of other government departments, published urban public transport guidelines that stressed the need to continue subsidies for buses and to introduce incremental long-distance bus fares based on actual kilometers traveled rather than fixed fares.

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