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    In Northeast China, Tourists From the South Spark a Winter Boom

    Following a surge in travelers from southern China, Harbin emerged as the top destination this New Year holiday season, outshining traditional favorites like Chengdu and Chongqing.
    Jan 03, 2024#tourism#economy

    Driven predominantly by a surge in visitors from China’s warmer southern regions, the northeastern city of Harbin drew an estimated 3 million tourists during the New Year holiday, marking a significant increase from previous years.

    Data from the online homestay booking platform Tujia showed a 28-fold increase in reservations for Harbin compared to the previous year. The influx made it the most sought-after destination during the three-day holiday, surpassing other popular cities like Chengdu and Chongqing in southwestern China.

    And while online travel agency Tongcheng Travel anticipated that this trend would continue through the upcoming school winter vacation and the Spring Festival, data from showed that a majority of the tourists came predominantly from southern cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, contributing to the 158% year-on-year increase in travel bookings during the New Year holiday.

    Among the tourists was Wu Ya, a 28-year-old from the southern city of Guangzhou, who initially doubted her chances of visiting Harbin this season amid the rush. But by joining a local group tour, Wu managed to enjoy a range of experiences, from savoring local barbecue to trying out skiing. 

    “We never expected the city to be this popular,” she told Sixth Tone. “But it all makes sense — we’ve had so much fun in the past couple of days.”

    The trend was also amplified on social media, where influencers highlighted the influx of ‘southerners’ to the city’s ski resorts and bathhouses, referring to them as “little potatoes from the south.” The phrase is associated with the distinctive light-colored down jackets and beanies that tourists from southern China typically wear when traveling to the north, as well as their comparatively shorter stature. Though criticized online for perpetuating stereotypes, locals clarified on social media that it reflected a genuine sense of goodwill and camaraderie.

    Liu Simin, a tourism expert at the Chinese Society for Future Studies, emphasized the pivotal role of viral memes and slang in boosting Harbin’s popularity.  “The massive attention to the city online has ignited local tourism,” Liu told domestic outlet National Business Daily. 

    Capitalizing on its online popularity, the northeastern city also hopes to emulate the success of Zibo, an industrial town in the eastern Shandong province that became a hugely popular barbecue destination following a viral social media campaign last year. 

    Apart from the iconic Harbin Ice and Snow festival, featuring nearly a thousand ice and snow sculptures and installations, tourist spots and business vendors across the city introduced a variety of new attractions, including hot balloon rides and bonfire parties. On Central Street, a major tourist destination in the city, the local government even organized parades featuring the Oroqens, an ethnic minority from the region. 

    Following the travel boom, provincial tourism authorities issued a statement thanking visitors and encouraging them to explore other cities beyond just Harbin. According to domestic media outlets, senior officials also made visits to several key tourist sites during the holiday period to review facilities and engage with tourists.

    Harbin resident Yang Qian told Sixth Tone that the surge left him pleasantly surprised. “These days, I feel like I’m a tourist too,” he said, referring to the many street vendors now offering a variety of snacks never seen before in his hometown.

    According to Yang, Harbin’s success extends beyond its online popularity, mentioning how the city’s established travel resources, unique urban landscapes, and natural scenery set it apart from other northeastern cities. “You can only get the full snow experience in Harbin; other cities just don’t compare,” he said. 

    Additional reporting: Yang Caini; editor: Apurva. 

    (Header image: The Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, Dec. 27, 2023. VCG)