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    In China, the Hottest Travel Accessory Is a Tenured Professor

    The country’s latest travel trend is the “study tour” — extended vacations guided by academic experts.
    Mar 26, 2024#tourism

    Xu Jilin, an intellectual historian at East China Normal University in Shanghai, spent the first week of March thousands of kilometers off campus in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Over the course of a six-day trip, he visited the site of the wartime National Southwestern Associated University, historical destinations like Chaoyang Tower and Shuanglong Bridge, and a major Confucian Temple.

    The trip wasn’t for research purposes. Instead, Xu was helping guide a group of roughly 20 travelers who had paid roughly 9,000 yuan ($1,250) apiece for the privilege of hearing his unfiltered thoughts on the history of Chinese ideology in the 20th century. In addition to traveling and dining with the group and answering any questions they might have, Xu gave two scheduled lectures, both on the lives of intellectual refugees in Southwest China during the Second World War.

    Known in Chinese as youxue, or “study tours,” such trips have exploded in popularity among well-to-do Chinese over the past two years. For onetime public intellectuals, the trips offer both a source of income and an all-expenses-paid vacation; for their fans, it’s a rare chance to reconnect with their idols after years spent out of the public eye and even pick their brains about topics of interest.

    There are almost as many study tours as there are academic disciplines. With enough money, you can travel the Aegean with philosopher Chen Jiaying, visit the temples of Kyoto and Nara with preservation expert Shi Zhaozhao, or explore the ancient civilizations of Central Asia’s Silk Road oases with economist Liang Xiaomin.

    While similar vacation packages exist elsewhere in the world, industry insiders in China point to a local source of inspiration: The term youxue appeared 2,100 years ago in Sima Qian’s “Records of the Grand Historian.” Some go back even further, arguing that Confucius, who roamed China with his disciples, was the original study tourist.

    For Wang Keke, who managed Xu’s Yunnan tour, his interest in the concept began while he was still a student at East China Jiaotong University. After founding a student group — the Thoughtful Learning Society — in 2015, he reached out on a whim to Liu Daoyu, the ex-president of Wuhan University known for making radical education reforms in the 1980s, and asked if members of his group could travel to Wuhan and meet Liu in person.

    To Wang’s surprise, the then 83-year-old Liu enthusiastically agreed. He arranged a classroom to meet in and spoke to Wang’s group for two hours. In 2018, not long after graduating, Wang decided to make organizing study tours his full-time job and founded Dajia Tan — “Everybody Talks.”

    For the first few years business was slow, but after 2023 brought the end of pandemic-related travel issues, registrations suddenly spiked, Wang says.

    According to Xu Yan, a study tour organizer and promoter at Xueren Youxue — “Scholar Study Tours” — the abrupt surge in interest in the trips can be attributed to a mix of factors. First, the revival of China’s cultural “fever” over the past few years. Previously overlooked museums are suddenly hot tourism destinations, and there’s been a renewal of interest in Chinese and international culture and history, especially among the middle class. Second, while group tours remain popular in China, more traditional alternatives involving long stretches of bus travel and perfunctory photo ops do not cater to the intellectual and spiritual interests of participants, opening a window for study tours. Finally, wealthier Chinese have shifted their consumption habits in recent years from material objects like luxury goods to more intangible pleasures, including study tours, live performances, and art exhibitions.

    There’s also a bandwagon effect, Xu acknowledges. “Isn’t that how it is in China now?” she said. “Wherever there’s an opportunity, a trend quickly forms.”

    A study tour is generally split into two components. The first is the actual tour, which requires organizing high-quality accommodations and itineraries. More complicated is the study element, which requires securing the right instructors. Although big names like Xu Jilin command a premium, the industry’s unique niche and the lack of competition from regular tour groups means an ordinary university lecturer is often enough to draw interest.

    Participants pay a hefty price to take part. The price of a study tour is typically two to three times higher than that of a regular group tour to the same destination. This generally limits the market for study tours to the upper middle class and wealthy, with most coming from the ranks of entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers, and retirees.

    The chance to meet and interact with like-minded people and scholars is a key part of the appeal for 21-year-old Ding Yifan. A third-year political science student at East China University of Political Science and Law, he sees the two to three study tours he takes a year as a chance to socialize. But what he really values are the teachers. “At university, I always feel as though my courses aren’t enough, and even attending lectures in other departments isn’t sufficient,” he said. “Study tours give me the rare opportunity to learn from China’s top scholars.”

    This almost fandom-like approach to academics is a big part of the study tour experience. Chen Xie, a 48-year-old owner of a software development company, sees the tours as a way to branch out from his leisure reading and actually meet his favorite authors. A longtime fan of Tsinghua University history professor Qin Hui, Chen has signed up for multiple tours involving the eminent historian in recent years, including one that involved hiking the eastern reaches of the Great Wall.

    As for the guides, the pay is good — in addition to travel expenses, even ordinary academics earn anywhere from 5,000 to 6,000 yuan a day ($700 to $800), according to industry insiders.

    It’s not just the money though. Some of the most sought-after guides have largely withdrawn from the public sphere in recent years. The tours offer them a chance to interact with fans and other like-minded people in safe, controlled settings while seeing the world. “The conversations I have on trips are often far deeper than what I can have with students,” Xu says.

    “The academics sometimes even forego their fees if the destination appeals to them, as long as you cover their travel and accommodation expenses,” says Wang. “Sometimes, they’ll even suggest itineraries. For example, Lei Yi, a historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, likes to visit Jiangnan region around Shanghai in spring. So we designed tours through historic eastern cities like Yangzhou and Nantong based on his suggestions.”

    Xu Jilin says demand for his services has increased over the past year. He generally agrees to as many tours as his schedule allows, though he prefers destinations he might not otherwise get the chance to visit, such as Iran, Cuba, or the Balkans.

    His trip to Yunnan had special significance: His father was once a student at the National Southwestern Associated University. “Whether participants or guides, study tours offer emotional value to everyone involved,” Xu says.

    (Header image: Xu Jilin (far left) on a study tour in Quanzhou, Fujian province, January 2024. Courtesy of Wang Keke)