And the Chinese government couldn’t be happier.
China has one of the largest national tourism markets in the world. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism has estimated that there will be more than four billion trips made through China in 2021, a market worth just over $ 500 billion.
With international tourism nearly impossible due to the pandemic and ongoing quarantine restrictions, a demand for domestic alternatives is not surprising – especially as China is home to 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
But Chinese tourists aren’t just heading to the historical and natural wonders of their country – some are looking for something a little different.
In posts on Chinese social media site Weibo, a user named Ancailie said that after spending a day picking blackberries, watching rice grow and eating local food, she was “much happier.” .
Another user, laozhenyiwen, described how they traveled to the country to fish and eat seafood for the recent May 1 holiday, happy to have “avoided the crowds.”
Chinese company Trip.com, one of the world’s largest online travel agencies, said that as of March 2021, rural tourism travel to China increased by more than 300% year-on-year. other.
The trend is so lucrative that Trip.com is planning a “five-year action plan” to promote rural tourism, which includes the training of 10,000 professional agents focused on the region and an investment of 1 billion yuan ($ 150 million) in local funds. rural tourism industry.
Zhou Mingqi, founder and general manager of Shanghai Tour Guide Enterprise Management Consulting, said the Chinese are tired of the lack of leisure opportunities and unique experiences in the country’s major cities.
“It is necessary to live a different kind of life, like an idyllic landscape or country life, to change your way of life on weekends,” he said.
Wang Shang works for a Beijing-based company that helps coordinate tours and activities in the countryside. She said that at one of the hotels she worked for, visitors can experience growing their own food, farming and learning about crafts and traditional customs in the area.
“Most weekend travelers are kindergarten or elementary school students and their parents,” she said.
While some country hotels are quite elaborate, others can be reasonably minimalist, with activities as simple as strawberry picking, visiting folk museums, or hanging out. local operas.
In Wang’s opinion, there are two main reasons people were excited about a country vacation: seclusion and experiencing a healthy lifestyle.
One of the hotels Wang worked at in eastern Shandong province opened in May 2020 – just after the initial worst outbreak of Covid-19 in China – and it was quickly filled with people seeking to vacation in the relative safety of the countryside, she said.
“The population density of rural areas is low, and the prevention and control of viruses has been well done. Many urban families choose to go there, ”she said.
Additionally, in a country where food and contaminated product scandals were common, Wang said tourists were also drawn to the potential for fresh and healthy produce in rural areas.
Wang said visitors from major cities come to buy flour, noodles, meat, eggs, honey, and alcohol, among others. “For each parent-child trip, we will organize picking or planting activities so the children can learn more about the crops. Parents are also very willing to take their children to play in the mud, ”Wang said.
“The guests go to the village to drink soy milk, watch the pigs in the pigsty and so on. Guests love these activities. “
The trend was also spurred by Chinese internet influencers such as Li Ziqi, whose beautifully shot videos of simple life in rural China, to peaceful music, have drawn tens of millions of viewers.
In a video, Li plants seeds to grow soybeans, and then make soy sauce. In another, she picks peaches and berries to make jam, creating it naturally without any food additives.
But despite the appearance of an authentic country experience, Zhou said an increasing number of rural hotels and villages are trying to attract visitors.
Some rural areas have even hired professional organizations to try and improve their attractiveness, said Zhou, planning and design experts specializing in arriving tourists.
“Nowadays, rural areas in many places have indeed undergone major changes. Especially after being renovated for tourism, they will become much more beautiful than in the past, as rural areas in the past had no planning and design. The farmers just built houses, ”he said.
The rapid growth of rural tourism is not only the result of the pandemic or rapid urbanization in China. It is also a major government policy.
Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government attempted to revitalize rural areas and support poor rural citizens through a poverty reduction program.
As more and more rural people move to the city for greater opportunities, smaller towns are finding it increasingly difficult to provide for themselves. Under Xi, the Chinese government implemented a massive spending, loan and public works program aimed at lifting every citizen of the country out of absolute poverty.
In November 2020, the Chinese Communist Party announced that it had achieved its goal, although Premier Li Keqiang pointed out in May that around 600 million Chinese, or about 40% of the population, still earn an average of 1,000. yuan per month (150 dollars).
But this policy has resulted in huge investments in rural areas on the part of civil servants. In December, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said the Chinese government spent $ 656 million (4.3 billion yuan) to improve “cultural progress and tourism development” in poor rural areas between 2016 and 2020.
According to Xinhua, in southwest Yunnan province alone, more than 800,000 people have been “lifted out of poverty” through rural tourism, with the industry generating more than $ 130 billion in revenue for the province over the years. last five years. In recent years, Chinese state media have been full of stories about villages across China employing thousands of people while attracting city tourists.
But not all investments have been successful. With large sums of money on offer and targets to be met, Zhou from Shanghai said some projects, especially in remote areas that are difficult to access – had not yet seen a return on investment.
“I’ve seen places investing tens of millions of dollars, but I haven’t brought a lot of travelers,” he said.
What to expect in the future
Wang, from the tourism company, said she believes rural tourism is just starting to take off and in the future it will focus more on China’s myriad of local cultures.
“Looking at the agricultural and rural development policies of recent years, I think rural areas have a lot of potential,” she said.
“For country hotels, I think there will be more tourism products with content based on local culture in the future, which are in-depth cultural tours. “
The national government does not seem to back down on its promotion of rural tourism. In a draft of the Chinese Communist Party’s 14th Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2021 to 2025, the government called for further strengthening of “recreational farming, rural tourism and the economy of host families. “.
Zhou, of the Shanghai Tour Guide Enterprise Management Consulting Company, said that as rural tourism is supported by both government policies and customer demand, the future looks bright.
“I am definitely optimistic about the overall outlook,” he said.