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    Pride and Peril in China’s Internet-Famous Cities

    Non-traditional tourism destinations like the old industrial city of Zibo have become viral sensations in China. But what happens after their 15 minutes are up?
    May 06, 2024#tourism

    A year ago, the northern Chinese city of Zibo suddenly became one of the country’s hottest tourism destinations. Travelers flocked to the old industrial center, not for its skyline, but for its barbecue, which had gone viral. The result was a massive windfall for the city and its vendors: Zibo recorded approximately 63 billion yuan ($8.7 billion) in domestic tourism spending in 2023, up more than 68% from the previous year.

    Zibo isn’t the only rust belt city to become popular with tourists in the past year. Over the winter, the northeastern city of Harbin, best known for its annual ice sculpture festival and Russian architecture, also went viral on social media. The city’s frigid temperatures, social-media friendly ice shows, and old Russian buildings produced an unusual reversal in the flow of tourism, drawing visitors from the warmer south eager to experience a winter wonderland.

    The meteoric rises of Zibo and Harbin are representative of how China’s cities are leveraging influencers in the post-pandemic era, and how social media and short video apps have reshaped China’s tourism industry. Although not traditionally considered the most attractive tourism and vacation destinations, these cities nevertheless have achieved remarkable success in the past year by catering to a new type of Chinese tourist — one less interested in the long queues found at scenic spots and more willing to embrace cheaper, more relaxed tourism models like city walks.

    Central to this approach are short video platforms such as Douyin, the version of TikTok accessible on the Chinese mainland. Take Harbin as an example. Although the city, which is located in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province, has many old Russian-style buildings and does not lack tourism resources, tourists began taking interest in it after a number of videos of local cultural performances, the laurel trees and artificial moon next to the old Sophia Church, and oddities like penguins carrying schoolbags around the city went viral.

    In academic terms, the impact of social media on tourism destination selection and consumption reflects the concept of “place attachment”: Images, videos, and testimonials shared on social media can quickly establish a person’s feelings for a place, and even if they have never been there, they nevertheless feel an affinity toward it. Short videos have a particularly significant effect in this regard. The form directly appeals to an audience’s emotions and quickly establishes a connection, while the content deepens the viewer’s understanding of a place and encourages them to further immerse themselves emotionally via comments and likes, thereby forming an attachment.

    The algorithms used by short video platforms tend to promote content that triggers strong emotional reactions. Thus, Zibo and Harbin’s use of visually appealing, resonant imagery helped them quickly gain traction. In Zibo’s case, the city’s popularity was closely linked to its actions during the pandemic, taking in students under quarantine and treating them to barbecue, which earned it goodwill nationwide. Harbin went viral in part due to its arresting winter landscape, but also thanks to videos of local shopkeepers warmly welcoming tourists from the south.

    With summer approaching, there will undoubtedly be more local governments hoping to replicate the success of the two cities and create the next unexpected viral sensation in their own jurisdictions. Although the direct contribution of tourism to local taxes is limited, it can drive the growth of service industries related to hotels, food, retail, and transportation, and its indirect contribution to the economy can be considerable. At the same time, tourism is a labor-intensive industry that typically creates a large number of jobs. This is quite attractive for local governments that are striving to boost consumption and promote employment in the post-pandemic era.

    However, it’s worth asking whether every city has the potential to become the next Zibo or Harbin — and whether doing so is always desirable. This requires a clear-headed analysis of the dynamics of the tourism market. People’s attention spans are limited; when a tourism destination becomes a social media destination, it can attract a large number of tourists in a short period of time. However, once the social media focus shifts away, the city may face a sharp drop in foot traffic, revenue, and employment opportunities. And as more and more cities vie for virality, the difficulty of going viral, to say nothing of staying viral, will only increase.

    Second, the sudden influx of tourists can have a negative impact on the local environment and culture. The existing carrying capacity of a city may not be able to meet the rapidly increasing demands of tourists. Once public facilities are overloaded and the quality of public services decreases, conflicts may erupt between residents and tourists, damaging the city’s reputation online. Excessive commercialization may also weaken local characteristics and be detrimental to maintaining cultural identity.

    Perhaps the more important question is whether it is wise in the long run to rely heavily on external consumption over local development. Unlike many traditional vacation destinations, the industry structure of places like Zibo and Harbin is not built around tourism; overemphasizing the role of tourism may disrupt the existing balance. During peak tourism season, resources and services are in short supply, while off-season commercial activities will decrease. This “tidal” phenomenon poses great challenges to the allocation of resources and business decision-making. If investment and infrastructure construction are vigorously promoted during the boom period, and the boom fades, the city can face a resource surplus, idle production capacity, and economic losses. That will seriously dampen investor enthusiasm and increase debt pressures, damaging its long-term competitiveness.

    Therefore, in addition to thinking about how to become an influencer destination, local governments need to consider how to sustainably develop their tourism industries, as well as how to diversify their economic development.

    Zibo, which was riding high last year, is already facing these problems. After the 2023 October National Day holiday, reports trickled out about sharp drops in taxi revenues. In Harbin, the hosting of the 2025 Asian Winter Games is expected to continue the city’s tourism boom, but after the novelty fades, the city will still need a more diversified urban identity. In both cases, tourism should not be an end in itself, but a means for channeling talent and enterprises to build a balanced economy.

    Even within the framework of tourism, Chinese cities need to avoid relying on a single tourism model. The success of Zibo and Harbin could easily become a trap for latecomers. Municipal governments need to conduct solid research into local ecological, agricultural, and cultural resources, identify unique advantages, and avoid copying models wholesale from elsewhere. This not only relates to the continuity of local cultural identity, but also to whether the tourism industry can truly enter a virtuous cycle and promote the rational allocation of resources.

    Translator: Matt Turner; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: Tourists in Zibo, Shandong province, June 2023. VCG)