Chinese people look further afield to avoid holiday overcrowdingby / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The same thing happens every year. Even though everyone in China knows the curse of the national May holiday, they still go to the same jam-packed tourist destinations. It’s the same with Chinese New Year, Golden Week (in October) and on the Labour Day weekend. Perhaps they don’t care about getting squashed.
Every year, on social media, television and in the newspapers, there is one photograph that you are bound to see. It shows a popular section of the Great Wall, but all you can see are faces and a mass of people pressed back to chest with the smoggy sky above; you can just about make out the Wall from its jutting sides. The television shows footage of people inching forwards, supposedly “climbing” the Great Wall.
China’s population is now 1.38bn, and this phenomenon of overcrowding—particularly pronounced during holiday time—is commonly known as ren shan ren hai, meaning “people mountain people sea.” My Beijing friends and I are stunned by the absurdity of these Great Wall pictures, shaking our heads as year after year, people get stuck in the same crowds.
I spend my holidays at home. There’s already plenty of congestion where I live in Beijing, without going out in search of an additional Labour Day punch-in-the-face. But for others, Beijing is a top domestic travel destination, alongside Shanghai and other cities. Bullet trains have cut journey times across China in half, and increasing wages and leisure time—for some at least—have led to an increase in internal tourism. Most Chinese workers get 11 days of public holiday per year. So of course they head for the Great Wall and Forbidden City, even if it means being terribly disappointed.
The more elderly generation still opts for traditional travel: sticking to and ticking off the major sites in big cities and travelling in large groups. But the new, well-off middle-class wants to get out of the country. During Chinese New Year last year, more than half of travellers chose to go abroad, in search of new experiences and cleaner air.
Even the longest public holiday in China is merely one week, so Japan, South Korea and Thailand are very popular destinations on account of their proximity. South Korea has been a firm favourite for years among young people due to its influence on Chinese high-street fashion, and the enduring appeal in China of K-Pop, the ultra-vivid form of Korean pop music. Thailand is becoming very popular with holidaying Chinese, on account of the relaxed rules on visas, cheap shopping and the amazing food.
Which is not to say that domestic tourism is on the wane. Travel within China is trendy among the young, many of whom have been abroad and returned with a renewed appreciation of their own cultural heritage. Smaller travel agencies are sprouting up to offer travel to new Chinese destinations such as Yunnan in the south, as well as even more far-flung places such as Xinjiang, or Tibet.
The Chinese are becoming more mobile. People are rapidly moving up, down, around and out of the country in cars, trains and planes. The sea of tour groups may still descend on tourist sites when holiday season comes, but the new middle class has different tastes. Perhaps in future, with so many choices, Chinese tourists to the Great Wall won’t have to worry about being lost in the crowd.