China is experiencing a rural tourism boom amid the Covid-19 pandemic

(CNN) – China is in the midst of a rural tourism boom as city dwellers escape the country’s fast-growing urban centers for a taste of the simple life in small communities, farms, and orchards.

And the Chinese government couldn’t be happier.

China has one of the largest domestic tourism markets in the world. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism estimates that there will be more than four billion trips to China in 2021, a market valued at just over $ 500 billion.Since international tourism is next to impossible due to the ongoing pandemic and quarantine restrictions, the demand for local alternatives is not surprising – especially since China is home to 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites.

However, Chinese tourists don’t just head to the historical and natural wonders of their country – some are looking for something else.

In posts on Chinese social media site Weibo, a user named Ancailie said she was “much happier” after spending a day picking mulberries, watching rice grow and eating homemade foods.

Another user, laozhenyiwen, described how they went to the countryside to fish and eat seafood on the last May 1st vacation.

Trip.com, one of the world’s largest Chinese-owned online travel agencies, said by March 2021, rural tourism trips in China had increased more than 300% year over year.

The trend is so lucrative that Trip.com is planning a “five-year action plan” to promote rural tourism that will include cultivating 10,000 local professional agents and investing 1 billion yuan ($ 150 million) in rural tourism funds.

Zhou Mingqi, founder and general manager of Shanghai Tour Guide Enterprise Management Consulting, said the Chinese are tired of the lack of recreational opportunities and unique experiences in the country’s major cities.

“It is necessary to experience a different type of life, such as an idyllic landscape or a country life, to change a lifestyle over the weekend,” he said.

The simple life

Wang Shang works for a Beijing-based company that helps coordinate land tours and activities. She said that at one of the hotels she worked for, visitors can experience growing their own food, farming, and learning about the traditional crafts and customs of the area.

“Most weekend trips are kindergarten or elementary school students and their parents,” she said.

While some of the country hotels are quite lavish, others can be quite minimalistic, with activities as simple as picking strawberries, visiting, or visiting folk museums local operas.

In Wang’s opinion, there are two main reasons people were excited about vacationing in the country – isolation and experiencing a healthy lifestyle.

One of the hotels Wang worked at in eastern Shandong Province opened in May 2020 – shortly after the worst of the first Covid-19 epidemic in China – and it was quickly filled with people vacationing in the country’s relative safety wanted to make landscape, she said.

“The population density in rural areas is sparse and virus prevention and control has been well done. So many urban families are choosing to go there,” she said.

In a country where previously contaminated food and produce scandals were frequent, Wang said tourists are also drawn to the potential for healthy, fresh produce in rural areas.

Wang said that visitors from big cities came to buy flour, noodles, meat, eggs, honey, and liquor, among other things. “For each parent-child trip, we organize picking or planting activities so the children can learn about the harvest. Parents are also very willing to take their children to play in the mud,” said Wang.

“Guests go to the village to drink soy milk, watch the pigs in the pigsty, and so on. Guests enjoy these activities.”

The trend was also driven by Chinese internet influencers like Li Ziqi, whose beautifully filmed videos of simple rural life playing peaceful music have drawn tens of millions of viewers.

In one video, Li plants seeds to grow soybeans and then make soy sauce. In another case, she picks peaches and berries to make jam and creates them naturally with no food additives.

Despite the occurrence of an authentic country experience, Zhou said that more and more rural hotels and villages were trying to attract visitors.

Some rural areas even hired professional associations to improve their attractiveness, said Zhou, planning and design experts who specialize in attracting tourists.

“Nowadays the rural areas have actually changed a lot in many places. Especially after the renovation for tourism, it will be much nicer than in the past, since the rural areas in the past had no planning and no design. The farmers only built houses,” he said said.

Millions of people in China are traveling again during the first major vacation since the Covid-19 outbreak. If China shows its confidence in containing the pandemic, is there a risk in getting the country moving? CNN’s David Culver reports.

Poverty alleviation

The rapid growth of rural tourism is not just the result of the pandemic or rapid urbanization in China. It is also an important government policy.

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has tried to revitalize rural areas and support poor people in rural areas through a poverty reduction program.

As more and more rural residents move to the city to take advantage of greater opportunities, small towns have increasing problems to feed themselves. Under Xi, the Chinese government set up an extensive program of spending, loans, and public works to lift every citizen of the country out of absolute poverty.In November 2020, the Chinese Communist Party announced that it had achieved its goal, although Prime Minister Li Keqiang pointed out in May that around 600 million Chinese people, around 40% of the population, are still an average of just 1,000 yuan per month (US $ 150). Dollars).But the policy meant huge investments by government officials in rural areas. In December, the state-run Xinhua News Agency announced that the Chinese government had spent $ 656 million (4.3 billion yuan) between 2016 and 2020 on improving “cultural advancement and tourism development” in impoverished rural areas.Xinhua said more than 800,000 people were “lifted out of poverty” in southwestern Yunnan Province alone thanks to rural tourism, with industry generating more than $ 130 billion in sales for the province over the past five years. In recent years, the Chinese state media has been full of stories of villages across China that employed thousands of people by attracting tourists from the city.

But not every investment has been a success. With large sums of money and goals to be achieved, Shanghai’s Zhou said some projects – especially in remote areas that are difficult to access – had not seen a return on investment yet.

“I’ve seen places that have invested tens of millions but haven’t brought many travelers with them,” he said.

What to expect in the future

Wang, from the tourism firm, said she believes that rural touring has only just begun and will focus more on China’s myriad local cultures in the future.

“Looking at agriculture and rural development policies over the past few years, I think rural areas have a lot of potential,” she said.

“For rural hotels, I think there will be more tourism products in the future with content based on local culture, which are in-depth cultural trips.”

The national government does not seem to be withdrawing its support for rural tourism. In a draft of the Communist Party’s 14th Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2021 to 2025, the government called for further strengthening of “recreational agriculture, rural tourism and the host family economy.”

Zhou of the management consultancy firm Shanghai Tour Guide said the future is bright as rural tourism is supported by both government policies and customer demand.

“I am definitely optimistic about the general outlook,” he said.