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More than Malatang: Tianshui’s Recipe for Success

Zibo had its BBQ moment. Now, it’s Tianshui’s turn to shine with its special take on malatang. Tourism marketing in China will never be the same again.

Manya Koetse

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Since the early post-pandemic days, Chinese cities have stepped up their game to attract more tourists. The dynamics of Chinese social media make it possible for smaller, lesser-known destinations to gain overnight fame as a ‘celebrity city.’ Now, it’s Tianshui’s turn to shine.

During this Qingming Festival holiday, there is one Chinese city that will definitely welcome more visitors than usual. Tianshui, the second largest city in Gansu Province, has emerged as the latest travel hotspot among domestic tourists following its recent surge in popularity online.

Situated approximately halfway along the Lanzhou-Xi’an rail line, this ancient city wasn’t previously a top destination for tourists. Most travelers would typically pass through the industrial city to see the Maiji Shan Grottoes, the fourth largest Buddhist cave complex in China, renowned for its famous rock carvings along the Silk Road.

But now, there is another reason to visit Tianshui: malatang.

 
Gansu-Style Malatang
 

Málàtàng (麻辣烫), which literally means ‘numb spicy hot,’ is a popular Chinese street food dish featuring a diverse array of ingredients cooked in a soup base infused with Sichuan pepper and dried chili pepper. There are multiple ways to enjoy malatang.

When dining at smaller street stalls, it’s common to find a selection of skewered foods—ranging from meats to quail eggs and vegetables—simmering in a large vat of flavorful spicy broth. This communal dining experience is affordable and convenient for solo diners or smaller groups seeking a hotpot-style meal.

In malatang restaurants, patrons can usually choose from a selection of self-serve skewered ingredients. You have them weighed, pay, and then have it prepared and served in a bowl with a preferred soup base, often with the option to choose the level of spiciness, from super hot to mild.

Although malatang originated in Sichuan, it is now common all over China. What makes Tianshui malatang stand out is its “Gansu-style” take, with a special focus on hand-pulled noodles, potato, and spicy oil.

An important ingredient for the soup base is the somewhat sweet and fragrant Gangu chili, produced in Tianshui’s Gangu County, known as “the hometown of peppers.”

Another ingredient is Maiji peppercorns (used in the sauce), and there are more locally produced ingredients, such as the black fungi from Qingshui County.

One restaurant that made Tianshui’s malatang particularly famous is Haiying Malatang (海英麻辣烫) in the city’s Qinzhou District. On February 13, the tiny restaurant, which has been around for three decades, welcomed an online influencer (@一杯梁白开) who posted about her visit.

The vlogger was so enthusiastic about her taste of “Gansu-style malatang,” that she urged her followers to try it out. It was the start of something much bigger than she could have imagined.

 
Replicating Zibo
 

Tianshui isn’t the first city to capture the spotlight on Chinese social media. Cities such as Zibo and Harbin have previously surged in popularity, becoming overnight sensations on platforms like Weibo, Xiaohongshu, and Douyin.

This phenomenon of Chinese cities transforming into hot travel destinations due to social media frenzy became particularly noteworthy in early 2023.

During the Covid years, various factors sparked a friendly competition among Chinese cities, each competing to attract the most visitors and to promote their city in the best way possible.

The Covid pandemic had diverse impacts on the Chinese domestic tourism industry. On one hand, domestic tourism flourished due to the pandemic, as Chinese travelers opted for destinations closer to home amid travel restrictions. On the other hand, the zero-Covid policy, with its lockdowns and the absence of foreign visitors, posed significant challenges to the tourism sector.

Following the abolition of the zero-Covid policy, tourism and marketing departments across China swung into action to revitalize their local economy. China’s social media platforms became battlegrounds to capture the attention of Chinese netizens. Local government officials dressed up in traditional outfits and created original videos to convince tourists to visit their hometowns.

Zibo was the first city to become an absolute social media sensation in the post-Covid era. The old industrial and mining city was not exactly known as a trendy tourist destination, but saw its hotel bookings going up 800% in 2023 compared to pre-Covid year 2019. Among others factors contributing to its success, the city’s online marketing campaign and how it turned its local BBQ culture into a unique selling point were both critical.

Zibo crowds, image via 163.com.

Since 2023, multiple cities have tried to replicate the success of Zibo. Although not all have achieved similar results, Harbin has done very well by becoming a meme-worthy tourist attraction earlier in 2024, emphasizing its snow spectacle and friendly local culture.

By promoting its distinctive take on malatang, Tianshui has emerged as the next city to captivate online audiences, leading to a surge in visitor numbers.

Like with Zibo and Harbin, one particular important strategy used by these tourist offices is to swiftly respond to content created by travel bloggers or food vloggers about their cities, boosting the online attention and immediately seizing the opportunity to turn online success into offline visits.

 
A Timeline
 

What does it take to become a Chinese ‘celebrity city’? Since late February and early March of this year, various Douyin accounts started posting about Tianshui and its malatang.

They initially were the main reason driving tourists to the city to try out malatang, but they were not the only reason – city marketing and state media coverage also played a role in how the success of Tianshui played out.

Here’s a timeline of how its (online) frenzy unfolded:

  • July 25, 2023: First video on Douyin about Tianshui’s malatang, after which 45 more videos by various accounts followed in the following six months.
  •  Feb 5, 2024: Douyin account ‘Chuanshuo Zhong de Bozi’ (传说中的波仔) posts a video about malatang streetfood in Gansu
  • Feb 13, 2024: Douyin account ‘Yibei Liangbaikai’ (一杯梁白开) posts a video suggesting the “nationwide popularization of Gansu-style malatang.” This video is an important breakthrough moment in the success of Tianshui as a malatang city.
  • Feb – March ~, 2024: The Tianshui Culture & Tourism Bureau is visiting sites, conducting research, and organizing meetings with different departments to establish the “Tianshui city + malatang” brand (文旅+天水麻辣烫”品牌) as the city’s new “business card.”
  • March 11, 2024: Tianshui city launches a dedicated ‘spicy and hot’ bus line to cater to visitors who want to quickly reach the city’s renowned malatang spots.
  • March 13-14, 2024: China’s Baidu search engine witnesses exponential growth in online searches for Tianshui malatang.
  • March 14-15, 2024: The boss of Tianshui’s popular Haiying restaurant goes viral after videos show him overwhelmed and worried he can’t keep up. His facial expression becomes a meme, with netizens dubbing it the “can’t keep up-expression” (“烫不完表情”).

The worried and stressed expression of this malatang diner boss went viral overnight.

  • March 17, 2024: Chinese media report about free ‘Tianshui malatang’ wifi being offered to visitors as a special service while they’re standing in line at malatang restaurants.
  • March 18, 2024: Tianshui opens its first ‘Malatang Street’ where about 40 stalls sell malatang.
  • March 18, 2024: Chinese local media report that one Tianshui hair salon (Tony) has changed its shop into a malatang shop overnight, showing just how big the hype has become.
  • March 21, 2024: A dedicated ‘Tianshui malatang’ train started riding from Lanzhou West Station to Tianshui (#天水麻辣烫专列开行#).
  • March 21, 2024: Chinese actor Jia Nailiang (贾乃亮) makes a video about having Tianshui malatang, further adding to its online success.
  • March 30, 2024: A rare occurrence: as the main attraction near Tianshui, the Maiji Mountain Scenic Area announces that they’ve reached the maximum number of visitors and don’t have the capacity to welcome any more visitors, suspending all ticket sales for the day.
  • April 1, 2024: Chinese presenter Zhang Dada was spotted making malatang in a local Tianshui restaurant, drawing in even more crowds.

 
A New Moment to Shine
 

Fame attracts criticism, and that also holds true for China’s ‘celebrity cities.’

Some argue that Tianshui’s malatang is overrated, considering the richness of Gansu cuisine, which offers much more than just malatang alone.

When Zibo reached hype status, it also faced scrutiny, with some commenters suggesting that the popularity of Zibo BBQ was a symptom of a society that’s all about consumerism and “empty social spectacle.”

There is a lot to say about the downsides of suddenly becoming a ‘celebrity city’ and the superficiality and fleetingness that comes with these kinds of trends. But for many locals, it is seen as an important moment as they see their businesses and cities thrive.

Even after the hype fades, local businesses can maintain their success by branding themselves as previously viral restaurants. When I visited Zibo a few months after its initial buzz, many once-popular spots marketed themselves as ‘wanghong’ (网红) or viral celebrity restaurants.

For the city itself, being in the spotlight holds its own value in the long run. Even after the hype has peaked and subsided, the gained national recognition ensures that these “trendy” places will continue to attract visitors in the future.

According to data from Ctrip, Tianshui experienced a 40% increase in tourism spending since March (specifically from March 1st to March 16th). State media reports claim that the city saw 2.3 million visitors in the first three weeks of March, with total tourism revenue reaching nearly 1.4 billion yuan ($193.7 million).

There are more ripple effects of Tianshui’s success: Maiji Shan Grottoes are witnessing a surge in visitors, and local e-commerce companies are experiencing a spike in orders from outside the city. Even when they’re not in Tianshui, people still want a piece of Tianshui.

By now, it’s clear that tourism marketing in China will never be the same again. Zibo, Harbin, and Tianshui exemplify a new era of destination hype, requiring a unique selling point, social media success, strong city marketing, and a friendly and fair business culture at the grassroots level.

While Zibo’s success was largely organic, Harbin’s was more orchestrated, and Tianshui learned from both. Now, other potential ‘celebrity’ cities are preparing to go viral, learning from the successes and failures of their predecessors to shine when their time comes.

By Manya Koetse

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©2024 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

In Hot Water: The Nongfu Spring Controversy Explained

Nongfu and nationalists: how the praise for one Chinese domestic water bottle brand sparked online animosity toward another.

Manya Koetse

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The big battle over bottled water has taken over Chinese social media recently. The support for the Chinese Wahaha brand has morphed into an anti-Nongfu Spring campaign, led by online nationalists.

Recently, China’s number one water brand, Nongfu Spring (农夫山泉) has found itself in the midst of an online nationalist storm.

The controversy started with the passing of Zong Qinghou (宗庆后), the founder and chairman of Wahaha Group (娃哈哈集团), the largest beverage producer in China. News of his passing made headlines on February 25, 2024, with one Weibo hashtag announcing his death receiving over 900 million views (#宗庆后逝世#).

The death of the businessman led to an outpouring of emotions on Weibo, where netizens praised his work ethic, dedication, and unwavering commitment to his principles.

Zong Qinghou, image via Weibo.

Born in 1945, Zong established Wahaha in Hangzhou in 1987, starting from scratch alongside two others. Despite humble beginnings, Zong, who came from a poor background, initially sold ice cream and soft drinks from his tricycle. However, by the second year, the company achieved success by concentrating on selling nutritional drinks to children, a strategy that resonated with Chinese single-child families (Tsui et al., 2017, p. 295).

The company experienced explosive growth and, boasting over 150 products ranging from milk drinks to fruit juices and soda pops, emerged as a dominant force in China’s beverage industry and the largest domestic bottled-water company.

Big bottle of Wahaha (meaning “laughing child”) water.

The admiration for Zong Qinghou and his company relates to multiple factors. Zong was loved for his inspirational rags-to-riches story under China’s economic reform, not unlike the self-made Tao Huabi and her Laoganma brand.

He was also loved for establishing a top Chinese national brand and refusing to be bought out. A decade after Wahaha partnered with the France-based multinational Danone in 1996, the two companies clashed when Zong accused Danone of trying to take over the Wahaha brand, which turned into a high-profile legal battle that was eventually settled in 2009, when Danone eventually sold all its stakes.

It is one of the reasons why Zong was known as a “patriotic private entrepreneur” (爱国民营企业家) who remained devoted to China and his roots.

Netizens also admire the Chinese tycoon’s modesty and humility despite his immense wealth. He would often wear simple cloth shoes and, apparently not caring much about the elite social stratum, allegedly declined invitations to dine with Bill Gates and the Queen of England. He had a people-centric business approach. He prioritized the welfare of Wahaha employees, ensuring the protection of pensions for retired workers, establishing an employee stock ownership plan, and refused to terminate employees older than 45.

A post praising Zong and his daughter for staying humble despite their wealth: wearing simple shoes and not looking at their phones.

Zong and his daughter stand out due to their simple shoes.

As a tribute to Zong following his passing in late February, people not only started buying Wahaha bottled water, they also initiated criticism against its major competitor, Nongfu Spring (农夫山泉). Posts across various Chinese social media platforms, from Douyin to Weibo, started to advocate for boycotting Nongfu as a means to “protect” Wahaha as a national, proudly made-in-China brand.

 
From Love for Wahaha to Hate for Nongfu
 

With the death of Zong Qinghou, it seems that the decades-long rivalry between Nongfu and Wahaha has suddenly taken center stage in the public opinion arena, and it’s clear who people are rooting for.

The founder and chairman of Nongfu Spring is Chinese entrepreneur Zhong Shanshan (钟睒睒), and he is perhaps less likeable than Zong Qinghou, in part because he is not considered as patriotic as him.

Born in 1954, Zhong Shanshan is a former journalist who started working for Wahaha in the early 1990s. He established his own company and started focusing on bottled water in 1996. He would become China’s richest man.

His wealth was not just accumulated because of his Nongfu Spring water, which would become a leader in China’s bottled water market. Zhong also became the largest shareholder of Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, which experienced significant growth following its IPO. Cecolin, a vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), is manufactured by Innovax, a wholly owned subsidiary of Wantai.

Zhong Shanshan, image via Sohu.

The fact that Zhong Shanshan previously worked for Zong Qinghou and later ventured out on his own does not cast him in a positive light, especially in the context of netizens mourning Zong. Many people perceive Zhong Shanshan as a profit-driven businessman who lacks humility and national spirit compared to his former boss. Some even label him as ‘ungrateful.’

By now, the support for Wahaha water has snowballed into an anti-Nongfu campaign, resulting in intense scrutiny and criticism directed at the brand and its owner. This has led to a significant boycott and a sharp decline in sales.

Netizens are finding multiple reasons to attack Nongfu Spring and its owner. Apart from accusing Zhong Shanshan of being ungrateful, one of the Nongfu brand’s product packaging designs has also sparked controversy. The packaging of its Oriental Leaf Green Tea has been alleged to show Japanese elements, leading to claims of Zhong being “pro-Japan.”

Chinese social media users claim the packaging of this green tea is based on Japanese architecture instead of Chinese buildings.

Another point of ongoing contention is the fact that Zhong’s son (his heir, Zhong Shuzi 钟墅子) holds American citizenship. This has sparked anger among netizens who question Zhong’s allegiance to China. Concerned that the future of Nongfu might be in the US instead of China, they accuse Zhong and his business of betraying the Chinese people and being unpatriotic.

But what also plays a role in this, is how Zhong and the Nongfu Spring PR team have responded to the ongoing criticism. Some bloggers (link, link) argue their approach lacks emotional connection and comes off as too business-like.

On March 3rd, Zhong himself issued a statement addressing the personal attacks he faced following the passing of Zong Qinghou. In his article (我与宗老二三事), he aimed to ‘set the record straight.’ Although he expressed admiration for Zong Qinghou, many found his piece to be impersonal and more focused on safeguarding his own image.

The same criticism goes for the company’s response to the “pro-Japan” issue. On March 7, they refuted ongoing accusations and stated that the architecture depicted on the controversial beverage packaging was inspired by Chinese temples, not Japanese ones, and that a text on the bottle is about Japanese tea culture originating from China.

 
Calls for Calmer Water
 

Although Weibo and other social media platforms in China have recently seen a surge in nationalism, not everybody agrees with the way Nongfu Spring is being attacked. Some say that netizens are taking it too far and that a vocal minority is controlling the trending narrative.

Posts or videos from people pouring out Nongfu water in their sink are countered by others from people saying that they are now buying the brand to show solidarity in the midst of the social media storm.

Online photo of netizen buying Nongfu Spring water: “I support Nongfu Spring, I support private entrepreneurs, I support the recovery of China’s economy. I firmly opposo populism running wild.”

While more people are speaking out against the recent waves of nationalism, news came in on March 13 that the 95-year-old mother of Zhong Shanshan had passed away. According to an obituary published in the Qianjiang Evening News newspaper, Guo Jin (郭瑾) passed away on March 11.

The obituary.

A screenshot of a WeChat post alleged to be written by Zhong Shanshan made its rounds, in which Zhong blamed the online hate he received, and the ensuing stress, for his mother’s death.

Wechat post, allegedly posted by Zhong himself, blaming the recent Nongfu Spring controversy and cyberbullying for the death of the 95-year-old Guo Jin.

While criticism of Zhong resurfaced for attributing the old lady’s death to “indescribable cyberbullying” (“莫名网暴”), some saw this moment as an opportunity to bring an end to the attacks on Nongfu. As the controversy continued to brew, the Sina Weibo platform seemingly attempted to divert attention by removing some hashtags related to the issue (e.g., “Zhong Shanshan’s Mother Guo Jin Passed Away” #钟睒睒之母郭瑾离世#).

The well-known Chinese commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also spoke out in support of Nongfu Spring and called for rationality, arguing that Chinese private entrepreneurs are facing excessive scrutiny. He suggested that China’s netizens should stop nitpicking over their private matters and instead focus more on their contributions to the country’s economy.

Others are also calling for an end to the waves of attacks towards Nongfu and Zhong Shanshan. Chinese entrepreneur Li Guoqing (李国庆), co-founder of the e-commerce company Dangdang (once hailed as the ‘Amazon of China’), posted a video about the issue on March 12. He said: “These two [Nongfu Spring and Wahaha brands] have come a long way to get to where they are today. The fact that they are competitors is a good thing. If old Zong [Qinghou] were still alive today and saw this division, he would surely step forward and tell people to get back to business and rational competition.”

Li Guoqing in his video (since deleted).

Li also suggested that Zong’s heir, his daughter Kelly Zong, should come out, broaden her perspective, and settle the matter. She should thank netizens for their support, he argued, and tell them that it is completely unnecessary to exacerbate the rift with Nongfu Spring in showing their support.

But those mingling in the matter soon discover themselves how easy it is to get your fingers burned on this hot topic. Li Guoqing might have meant well, but he also faced attacks after his video. Not only because people feel he is putting Kelly Zong in an awkward position, but also because his own son. like Zhong Shuzi, allegedly holds American citizenship. Perhaps unwilling to find himself in hot water as well, Li Guoqing has since deleted his video. The Nongfu storm may be one that should blow over by itself.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes

References

Tsui, Anne S., Yingying Zhang, Xiao-Ping Chen. 2017. “Chinese Companies Need Strong and Open-minded Leaders. Interview with Wahaha Group Founder, Chairman and CEO, Qinghou Zong.” In Leadership of Chinese Private Enterprises
Insights and Interviews, Palgrave MacMillan.

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China Brands, Marketing & Consumers

Show-Inspired Journeys: Chinese Netizens Explore Next Travel Destination Through Favorite TV Series

The rising influence of Chinese TV dramas on tourism highlights the synergy between entertainment & social media in China, serving as a powerful tool for travel promotion.

Wendy Huang

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The Chinese TV series Meet Yourself has significantly boosted the popularity of Dali in Yunnan. The series’ success, coupled with the official funding behind it, not only underscores the impactful role of Chinese dramas in tourism but also illustrates how Chinese travel destination promotional strategies are being reshaped in a competitive post-Covid era.

On December 25th, the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture’s Culture and Tourism Bureau in Yunnan Province, Southwest China, announced a proposed subsidy of 2 million yuan ($282k) for the Chinese TV series Meet Yourself (去有风的地方).

The news soon went trending on Weibo (#去有风的地方获200万元补助#). Many found it noteworthy, especially since the announcement clarified that this funding is part of the prefecture’s special fund for cultural and tourism industry development, and the TV series was the only project under consideration.

There are several reasons why Dali might consider this strategy.

Firstly, Dali plays a pivotal role in Meet Yourself. Launched in January 2023, the TV series quickly became an online sensation, achieving an impressive rating of 8.7 out of 10 on Douban—a platform in China similar to IMDb. Spanning 40 episodes, the series features actress Liu Yifei (刘亦菲), renowned for her role in Disney’s live-action Mulan, and Chinese actor Li Xian (李现).

Promotional image for Meet Yourself (去有风的地方).

The narrative follows a white-collar worker in her mid-30s who, following her best friend’s unexpected cancer diagnosis and subsequent passing, embarks on a quest to understand the true meaning and purpose of life.

The TV series not only captivated audiences because of its soothing narrative about life and interpersonal relationships, but the show was also a hit because most of its scenes were filmed in Dali and showed picturesque rural landscapes and portrayed a slow-paced, idyllic lifestyle.

The show accumulated more than 3 billion views on the streaming platform Mango TV by the time its final episode aired on February 2, 2023. It also sparked numerous trending topics on Weibo during that time. For instance, one snapshot from the drama, “Liu Yifei Holding Flowers” (刘亦菲捧花), also went viral, with many netizens even changing their profile pictures to this image. Captivated by Liu’s beauty and charm, they believed that the image possessed some sort of magical power, like the symbolic significance of koi fish in Chinese culture and how they’re believed to bring good luck.

The ‘lucky’ Liu Yifei holding flowers image.

The lucky Liu Yifei holding flowers meme spread across social media in various ways.

Benefiting directly from the popularity generated by the TV series, Yunnan experienced a surge in visitors during the 2023 Spring Festival holiday. This influx significantly boosted its tourism revenue to an impressive 38.4 billion yuan (approximately US$5.4 billion), surpassing all other provinces and regions in the country.

The primary filming location of the drama, the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, welcomed over 4.2 million visitors, marking a significant year-on-year increase. Within the first six days of the holiday, Dali boasted the highest room occupancy rate nationwide, and became the fifth most visited tourist destination across the country.

 
TV Series Inspiring Real-Life Travel to Featured Destination
 

Dali is not the only city or travel destination that has become popular because of Chinese dramas or TV shows. The recent Chinese TV series There Will Be Ample Time (故乡,别来无恙), in which Chengdu plays a major role, has also come to be seen as a promotion for the Sichuan Province capital city.

The series revolves around four women who grew up together, chose different paths in life, and then reconnect in Chengdu. The series showcases the city’s laid-back lifestyle, especially in contrast to the fast-paced metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai where the featured women return from.

Scene from There Will be Ample Time (故乡,别来无恙).

Back in 2003, the TV series Lost Time (似水年华), which was filmed in the historic scenic town of Wuzhen, also became popular. Lost Time was written, directed, and starred by the renowned Chinese actor and director Huang Lei (黄磊). The series narrates a poignant love story of a couple in their thirties who meet in Wuzhen, only to be separated by the vast distance between Wuzhen and Taipei.

The TV series successfully showcased the timeless beauty of the Wuzhen water town to a broader Chinese audience and, indirectly, promoted the town’s unique artistic and cultural atmosphere. This later led to the establishment of the Wuzhen Theatre Festival, a celebration of performing arts and a center for cultural exchange. The festival has since become one of the premier events in China and Asia. Each year, as the festival unfolds, there is a significant increase in business, with tourists flocking to the area.

On social media today, Lost Time is still seen as one of the major reasons why Wuzhen became so popular among Chinese travelers.

Wuzhen featured in Lost Time (似水年华).

But it’s not only the television series that portray a slower-paced and romantic lifestyle that motivate viewers to visit the showcased destinations. In 2020, the filming locations of the popular Chinese crime and suspense drama The Bad Kids (隐秘的角落) not only entertained its audience but also boosted tourism in the actual places where it was shot.

Much of the filming for the TV thriller took place in Chikan, an old township located in Zhanjiang in Guangdong. As a result, Zhanjiang’s popularity as a tourist destination skyrocketed by 261 percent in a single week.

Earlier in 2023, Jiangmen in Guangdong Province also gained popularity after it was featured in the popular crime TV drama The Knockout (狂飙). As a result, it became a sought-after destination during the May Day holiday, drawing numerous TV enthusiasts to the city. Jiangmen reportedly received over 765,200 visitors in the first two days of the May Day holiday alone, generating a revenue of approximately 439 million yuan (US$62.2 million).

Jiangmen’s popularity went beyond the May Day holiday. The Knockout caused a steady influx of visitors to the Guangdong city. From January to October of 2023, the city saw a total of 20,278,200 tourists, a reported year-on-year increase of 85.36%. This resulted in a tourism revenue of 19.649 billion yuan, representing an impressive increase of 133.77%.

 
Beyond the TV Screen: Social Media Creating Travel Hits
 

Over the past few years, we’ve seen how there are always unpredictable factors that help Chinese destinations suddenly become a hit among travelers. For instance, in late 2021, a song titled “Mohe Ballroom” (漠河舞厅) gained popularity across various social media platforms in China. This song narrates the story of a man who, for thirty years, danced alone in the Mohe Ballroom following the death of his beloved wife.

Prior to the song’s release, many Chinese netizens were familiar with Mohe as it is the northernmost point of China, and it is extremely cold. As the song gained traction on social media, the local government seized the opportunity to promote the city’s ice and snow tourism. Now, Mohe has emerged as a new destination for tourists seeking a unique, chilly experience.

Another example is Zibo, an ancient industrial city, which treated students well during their Covid quarantine period. So, when China lifted all Covid restrictions in the spring of 2023, these students returned to express their gratitude and celebrate the city. Their contagious enthusiasm, coupled with their social media posts about the city, sparked nationwide interest and people soon flocked to Zibo to enjoy the vibe and the local BBQ (read more here).

During the summer of 2023, the city of Tianjin became online hit due to a group of energetic seniors who transformed a local bridge into a stage for their remarkable water acrobatics. Tianjin’s so-called “diving grandpas” attracted attention for their daring dives into the river from the Stone Lion Forest Bridge (狮子林桥). Videos of their dives quickly went viral on China’s social media, drawing tourists, including many foreign residents in China, to witness the spectacle firsthand. Some people even joined to dive, including He Chong (何冲), the 2008 Olympic Champion in the 3m springboard.

Tianjin’s diving grandpas had to stop their diving activities after rising to internet fame, causing too many people to dive into the river.

In a playful twist, some visitors created their own scorecards, acting as judges and rating the divers’ performances. However, this spontaneous event eventually had to be toned down due to safety concerns. Despite this, the event kept Tianjin in the spotlight for quite a while as a tourist destination.

Social media has become a vital tool for cities and tourist destinations aiming to attract potential visitors. While some destinations organically become online sensations due to a combination of factors, other efforts are more deliberate and strategic. For instance, in spring of 2023, Chinese local government officials went all out to promote their hometowns via online channels, going viral on Weibo, Douyin, and beyond for dressing up in traditional outfits and creating original videos about their hometowns with low to zero budget.

However, when an article by Xinhua News criticized this approach, suggesting that local officials should prioritize improving service quality in their hometowns rather than striving for internet fame, the online trend appeared to wane.

Over the last year, different regions and industries in China made significant efforts to boost their local economies through tourism to recover from the impact of the pandemic. The China Tourism Academy recently published a report that forecasts that the number of China’s domestic tourists in 2023 has hit 5.407 billion, and domestic tourism revenue will amount to 5.2 trillion yuan. This figure allegedly represents a recovery to 90% compared to pre-Covid year 2019.

The upcoming Chinese New Year’s holiday is expected to kick off a promising start for the Chinese tourism industry in 2024. According to Trip.com data, bookings for the 2024 New Year’s holiday have surged by over threefold compared to the corresponding period last year. Furthermore, Tongcheng Travel highlights skiing, hot springs, Northern Lights viewing, music events, outdoor activities, island retreats, cruises, staycations, and firework displays as the top domestic travel preferences during this holiday season.

As China has significantly relaxed several travel and visa policies for both Chinese and international travelers, the number of outbound travel bookings for the New Year’s holiday on Trip.com has also seen a nearly fivefold increase compared to the same period last year while inbound tourism is on the rise.

Meanwhile, the way in which the TV drama Meet Yourself (去有风的地方) has boosted the tourism industry of Dali, which already was a popular tourist destination, is generating ongoing discussions on Chinese social media as it is a good example of how the integration of destination themes can captivate viewers’ attention, inspiring them to visit and discover the real-life locations.

In this way, TV shows serve as powerful platforms for local tourism authorities across China. First, utilizing television series provides them with a higher level of control compared to other methods of online promotion, including more fleeting trends. The show’s narratives, vibe, and filming locations can precisely showcase a destination’s unique features, attractions, and local culture.

Second, featuring destinations in TV series effectively accomplishes two goals at once, as Chinese TV dramas and online communities have become strongly intertwined. This amplifies the influence and reach of such productions, as fans engage, share, discuss, and promote the series and associated destinations across various social media platforms. And so, a featured scene or image, such as the one with Liu Yifei, can transcend the series itself and become an entire trend of its own on Chinese social media channels.

For travelers, visiting a destination featured in a beloved TV drama is not just about exploring a new location—it’s about experiencing a feeling and and immersing oneself in a fantasy. This trend won’t end with Meet Yourself, as new dramas inspire viewers to visit new locations again. As fans are binge watching the TV series Love Me, Love My Voice (很想很想你), Guangxi’s Guilin is the next hotspot attracting attention online for its portrayal in the show. “I finished watching the show,” one viewer wrote, “Now I want to start traveling.”

By Wendy Huang

Edited for clarity by Manya Koetse

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