Published: 14:13, May 24, 2024
Taking the road less traveled
By Yang Feiyue

Small cities and county-level attractions draw visitors with affordable experiences in quiet settings, helping to bolster China’s tourism industry

Visitors walk in the ancient town in Tianshui, Gansu province, on May 1, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Chinese travelers’ growing preference for niche destinations and experiences has ignited the huge tourism potential of many of the country’s lesser-known travel spots.

From last year’s barbecue craze in Zibo, Shandong province, to this year’s obsession with malatang, a spicy hot pot of boiled meat and vegetables on offer, in Tianshui, Gansu province, travelers are sending clear signals that a major shift in the domestic tourism market is underway.

The two prefecture-level cities attracted millions of travelers who were willing to wait in line for hours to taste the local specialties.

On social media, travel products are increasingly emphasizing their “uniqueness” as a way for people to showcase their individuality and lifestyle choices.

Since 2021, when the country was in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wen Yuxiang from Chengdu, Sichuan province, has discovered his passion for visiting small cities and county-level destinations off the beaten track. “I didn’t fancy the popular tourist sites in downtown city areas and I couldn’t travel long distances,” said Wen, who is in his 30s.

That was when he started to explore counties on the edges of Chengdu.

“Travel information about those small destinations was mostly fragmented, so I just pieced together the details and came up with my own itinerary,” he said.

Wen soon realized that there were so many options that he could satisfy his wanderlust in relative peace and quiet.

“I have been stunned by a lot of historical architecture and the breathtaking natural landscapes in those small cities and counties,” he said.

People visit Putuo Zongcheng Temple in Chengde, Hebei province, on May 2, 2024. (DU LIANYI / CHINA DAILY)

Although sometimes he encounters discrepancies between online accounts of the destinations and what they are like in reality, in most instances his trips have not been disappointing. He has visited lesser-known destinations in many provinces including Sichuan, Gansu, Guizhou, Shanxi and Guangdong.

“They are small, but they all offer the necessary facilities, such as transportation, accommodation and dining,” Wen said. “Most importantly, these places have kept alive the identity of the local people and the communities. This is more appealing to me than crowded big cities.”

As he shared his travel experiences on the social media platform Xiaohongshu, the number of his followers grew from fewer than 200 in 2022 to more than 72,000 today.

“My fans come from different regions around the country, and most of them have given me very positive feedback, even calling me their guide to treasured getaways,” he said.

Wen is proud that many of his followers share photos of their trips to destinations he has recommended, often saying that they felt the same way that Wen did in regard to the experience.

During the May Day holiday, a wooden pagoda in Yingxian county, Shanxi province, with a history dating back almost 1,000 years attracted droves of travelers. The county saw local homestay bookings surge by 180 percent year-on-year during the holiday, the online service platform Meituan reported.

In Pingtan county, Fujian province, the stunning natural phenomenon known as “blue tears” drew big crowds of tourists and photographers over the holiday. The luminous blue waters are caused by a chemical reaction called bioluminescence.

More than 310,000 tickets for the coastal scenic spot were sold on the Meituan platform during the vacation.

“Walk-in guests who didn’t make reservations were still coming in and asking if we had spare rooms,” said Gao Huan, who runs a hotel near the blue tear site in Pingtan.

A boy walks past oil-paper umbrellas in Chengde, Hebei province, on May 3, 2024. (DU LIANYI / CHINA DAILY)

The hotel’s 88 rooms were booked out for the holiday.

The visitors to Pingtan were mainly young people who had come from other provinces, especially self-driving tourists from Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, Gao said.

Li Jian, general manager of China National Travel Service (HK) Group Corp’s Anji Tourism Development Co, said the company has seen Anji’s charm embraced by many visitors from big cities who enjoy the county’s slower pace.

The company signed a tourism agreement with the Anji county government more than a decade ago, and has since worked to build up tourism facilities there.

“The county enjoys a great geographical position, about a two-hour drive from Shanghai and Hangzhou, and has done a good job in upgrading the rural environment,” Li said.

“It was already attracting urban travelers to take a walk around, so we decided to invest in it,” he added.

Over the years, hotels, camping sites and recreational programs have been created to spice up travelers’ experiences. “They can drink coffee while taking in the rapeseed flowers, as well as appreciating art exhibitions and taking pictures against interesting backgrounds we prepare for them,” Li said.

The Anji operation opened in 2018, and received a surge of travelers during COVID-19, as more tourists from big cities opted for short-distance travel due to health safety concerns, Li said.

The company added a commercial street and an animal farm last year to better cater to travelers’ demands.

Tourists take a selfie at a temple dedicated to Fuxi — the legendary ancestor of the Chinese nation in Tianshui, Gansu province, in April 2024. (HOU CHONGHUI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Last year, the firm raked in more than 100 million yuan ($13.85 million) in tourism revenue.

“City travelers love their stay here, because the experience is different and it is relatively cheaper,” Li said, adding that the county is close to nature and offers easy access to outdoor activities, such as rafting in the summer and skiing in the winter.

Most of the travelers are families interested in the parent-child activities arranged by Li’s company.

The Anji site received about 5,000 visitors a day during the May Day holiday. “Although our rooms were fully booked, the travel flow remained the right amount, with no traffic jams,” Li said.

China boasts more than 2,800 county-level administration zones, according to a 2023 national research report on the high-quality development of such tourism. The research was conducted by the National County-Level Tourism Research Project Team in Beijing.

The study noted that only 79 counties reported tourism revenue exceeding 10 billion yuan and total tourist arrivals of over 10 million. Counties with tourism revenue below 3 billion yuan accounted for 65.86 percent of the total.

The statistics indicate the huge untapped potential of tourism in counties and other lower-tier markets, experts said.

Wang Yalei, an analyst from Trip.com Group’s research center, said there is vast potential for tourism growth in those lower-tier markets, as tourists seek out less crowded sites and more affordable travel experiences.

“Compared with the high accommodation and dining expenses in first and second-tier cities during holidays, those (lower-tier) markets offer better value for money,” Wang said.

Tourists visit the Wooden Tower in Yingxian county, Shanxi province, on May 4, 2024. (CHEN YAN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Data from Trip.com Group showed that during the May Day holiday the average daily hotel price in county-level markets was only half of that in popular first and second-tier cities.

The May Day holiday saw strong public demand for niche experiences, particularly in the countryside, rather than crowded attractions, the travel agency said.

Zhejiang province’s Anji and Tonglu, and Sichuan province’s Dujiangyan were among the 10 most popular county-level destinations, with tourism orders increasing by 36 percent on average during the May Day holiday, Trip.com said.

“From the demand side, travelers’ tendency to avoid crowds is becoming increasingly more apparent, leading to a growing number of them shifting from first and second-tier central cities toward third and fourth-tier cities, and even counties. This trend is expected to become more common in the future,” Wang said.

The improvement of high-speed rail transportation infrastructure has increased accessibility to third and fourth-tier cities as well as county-level markets, Wang said.

At the same time, tour offerings in lower-tier markets keep improving. Since the beginning of this year, nearly 1,000 county-level tourist attractions have been added to Trip.com’s platform, according to the agency.

Since December last year, more than 120 new 4A-level tourist attractions have emerged across 10 provincial-level administrative regions, with 65 percent of them located in county and county-level cities, the agency reported.

The prosperity of county-level tourism markets means an expansion of the tourist population and a greater diversification of travel destinations, making the foundation of the Chinese tourism market even stronger, Wang said.

In addition, rural residents’ travel numbers now account for 16.9 percent of the total number of domestic holiday travelers, according to a recent report from the China Tourism Academy.

This structural shift in the demand side of the tourism market will make cost-effectiveness a more crucial aspect of market competition, which promises more opportunities for lower-tier cities, according to the report.

Dai Bin, president of the academy, said tourism stakeholders and authorities should all be aware that a new era of mass tourism characterized by rising demand for lower-tier destinations has arrived.

yangfeiyue@chinadaily.com.cn