Wuhan has long been known as a manufacturing centre for steel, iron and cars, but that image is changing as a glut of new business is transforming the commercial landscape, as witnessed by the city's top hotels. Shangri-La Hotel Wuhan opened in 1999 as the first 5-star hotel in the area. Most guests are business travellers and the hotel can cater events for about 1,000 guests. The hotel is seeing changes to its guest demographics as the city develops. With a new high-speed rail link reducing travelling time from Shanghai to five hours, the number of Shanghai-based visitors checking into the hotel has grown by 35 per cent, says general manager Marcel Holman. That number, however, is dwarfed by an influx of Japanese business guests, whose number has increased by 152 per cent. Japan recently opened a representative office in Wuhan. 'Japan is the largest trade partner of Hubei province and the province is home to nearly 400 Japanese companies. A direct flight from Wuhan to Tokyo is scheduled for launch very soon,' Holman says. Direct flights to Singapore, France and San Francisco have also been proposed. As work continues to overhaul the city's airport, those destinations do not seem to be out of reach. The high-speed rail network already extends to Guangdong, but will eventually expand to link Shenzhen and Beijing, and hotels are expecting guest numbers from those hubs to increase accordingly. Meanwhile, more economic zones and a new exhibition centre aim to bring in new business. The effects are being seen across the board. 'Wuhan has always had local meetings,' says John Beresford, general manager at Marco Polo Wuhan. Traditionally, these were government-related and included the tobacco industry or medical fields, he says. 'Now we are seeing smaller, private companies holding meetings.' He names banking and pharmaceuticals as just two of the new supporting industries helping to boost the local corporate and meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions sector. The change has been advantageous for the hotel, which can host events for up to 260 visitors. Beresford says the property has been aggressively seeking suitable partners. But Wuhan isn't just pegging itself as the go-to business centre of central China. Other plans will highlight the area's cultural and heritage appeal. At the Novotel Wuhan Xin Hua, located in the city's commercial and financial district, executive assistant manager Eric Li is already seeing leisure guest numbers jump. 'When the Guangdong rail link opened, our tour group and leisure figures tripled,' he says. Now Li seeks a share of the cruise-line dollars. Tourists cruising the Three Gorges typically begin or end their trips at Yichang. A visit to Wuhan from Yichang meant a 12-hour drive or almost six hours by train, but a new rail link due to open late this year will cut travel time to less than two hours. 'Everything is being prepared for the city to go further, both economically and for leisure. The next five years will be exciting,' Li says.