What pandemic? Crowds crowd Great Wall of China during holidays

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(CNN) – The Great Wall of China scene last week would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

Photos from the Beijing tourist attraction last weekend show massive crowds crowded along the winding wall, huddled together and huddled together through narrow doorways. Most wear face masks – but a number of people, including young children, have lowered their masks to their chin, and a few appear to have given up on masks altogether.

It’s Golden Week – an eight-day national holiday, one of China’s busiest annual travel periods, and a major test for the country emerging from the coronavirus pandemic.

The numbers of viruses reported by China have remained low since the spring. There have been a few outbreaks, including a cluster in Beijing in June, but these were immediately followed by lockdowns and mass testing, and the outbreaks were contained within weeks.

With nearly zero local transmission, people flocked to bus stations, airports and transit hubs to travel across the country for the vacation, which began on October 1. Local authorities have competed to attract tourists, with provincial and municipal governments issuing travel vouchers and attractions offering free or discounted tickets.

The Great Wall has also prepared for the influx of tourists. The most popular section of the wall – the Badaling section – reopened at the end of March, but with new restrictions such as requiring visitors to book tickets in advance.

Chinese tourists flock to a gate on a section of the Great Wall on October 4.

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

In a notice published on September 29, the Badaling Special Administrative Region office – a government agency that manages the Great Wall – warned visitors to continue to follow restrictions during the holiday season.

These restrictions include social distancing by keeping one meter (about 3.3 feet) apart. “It is strictly forbidden to assemble,” says the notice. Earlier guidelines on the Great Wall website reminded tourists to wear their masks throughout their visit and urged them to “obey the advice and management of museum staff.”

Neither of those restrictions appeared to be closely followed this week as bare-faced tourists crowded the wall.

Normally, over 10 million people visit the Great Wall each year. The Badaling section, notoriously overcrowded with local and international tourists, is so popular that authorities instituted a cap of 65,000 visitors per day as of June 2019.

Tickets for the Badaling section of the Great Wall sold out completely during the Golden Week holidays.

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

When the section reopened in March, new restrictions capped the number of daily visitors to 30% of its usual capacity. Ahead of the Golden Week celebrations, authorities raised this cap to 75% of normal capacity, or a daily limit of 48,750 visitors.

The Golden Week holiday – the longest in China along with the Lunar New Year holiday – has traditionally seen middle-class Chinese travel abroad in large numbers. But this year, visa restrictions, quarantine requirements, lack of international flights and the continuing danger of Covid-19 mean Chinese travelers are looking for domestic travel instead.

In the first four days of vacation alone, 425 million domestic tourist trips were made to China – generating more than $ 45 billion in tourism revenue, according to data from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

“We have seen more tourists this year than in previous years. The number of daily tourists has doubled since we waived the entrance fee, ”an employee of the Yellow Crane Tower attraction in Wuhan said last week, according to state media Global Times.

This week’s relaxed restrictions and breaches of social distancing rules contrast starkly with the anxiety that overshadowed China’s last major travel period – the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, as the outbreak of coronavirus has swept Wuhan.

On January 23, two days before the Lunar New Year, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan – but by then the virus had already spread across and beyond the country, as hundreds of millions of Chinese people were traveling for vacation.

As more and more information about the virus emerged, Chinese transit centers were emptying; those who were still traveling were usually dressed in full protective gear, including plastic gloves, ponchos, helmets, masks and goggles.

The sense of impending danger has largely faded now, said Chen Qianmei, a 29-year-old man from the southern city of Guangzhou, who flew to Shanghai last week for vacation.

“I think China has (the virus) under pretty good control,” she told CNN. “I wear masks and bring alcohol wipes to wash my hands, especially before eating – although in Shanghai not many people wear masks now. “

CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed to this report.

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