ANN/THE STAR – Zibo, in eastern Shandong province, looks just like any other industrial town in China, home to petrochemicals, textiles and porcelain factories.
Its biggest claim to fame is a visit by then FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2004, who proclaimed the city the birthplace of soccer based on tenuous links to an ancient ball game.
The city of 4.7 million is now one of the hottest tourism destinations in China, with the highest hotel room occupancy rates in the entire nation for the five-day Labour Day vacation that began on April 29, according to data from leisure booking app Meituan.
When train tickets for the holiday period went on sale last month, the Beijing-Zibo route sold out in under a minute, according to domestic media.
Local authorities advised people last Wednesday to avoid visiting the city during the holiday, warning it may struggle with the sudden influx and hotels are almost completely booked up.
Tourists, particularly young ones, are flocking to Zibo not for any famous scenic spots or historical sites, but for its promise of a low-cost, value-for-money experience. It’s best symbolised by the city’s barbecue skewer meals, where USD10 can buy roughly 35 meat skewers.
As China quickly re-opens after finally dropping its virus restrictions, scenes like those in Zibo demonstrate how despite high hopes for the economy to bounce back immediately, the financial hit from three years of zero-COVID is still keeping a lid on residents’ spending power.
That’s especially true for younger people who are facing historically high unemployment rates, while overseas travel remains out of reach for many given high ticket prices.
Searches for domestic hotels for the Labour Day holiday are up almost 200 per cent from 2019, while those for overseas destinations have only recovered to around 70 per cent of pre-COVID levels, according to data from online booking site Ctrip.com.
“There’s a divergence in the speed of consumption recovery,” said analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence Ada Li.
“Lower income groups, who would have been affected the most by pandemic and unemployment, are typically more cost-conscious as they have less disposable income. It takes longer for their demand to recover.”
Travelling to Zibo makes sense for many young people, who are hankering for cheap eats and the chance to hang out with friends after three years of social isolation and economic stress.
“This is my first trip since the end of COVID,” said college student Chris Wu, who is planning to only spend CNY1,200 during her Labour Day getaway in Zibo and can’t afford to go abroad.
She said she plans a “special forces” style holiday, using a popular term that describes a short trip with a packed itinerary to minimise costs.
The fact that these consumers are willing to travel to another city shows “even the money-conscious group is willing to start spending on experiences,” said Li.
Zibo drew attention in March thanks to good reviews from a group of students who went back to the city to reminisce about the food and their positive experience while in quarantine there in 2022, according to the People’s Daily.
Later, a popular content creator visited and found that vendors there serve generous portions, sparking more discussions about the city with viral hashtags.
“Most consumers are very surprised how sincere and honest the Zibo business people are, as they didn’t raise prices even when tourist traffic surged so significantly,” said Shanghai-based principal at consulting Oliver Wyman Dave Xie.
“It’s so common for popular tourist cities to rip people off.”
The number of visitors to Zibo increased by 134 per cent to 4.8 million in March from a year ago, with income from tourism jumping 60 per cent, according to a report in news outlet Yicai.
Local officials stepped in to add express trains, cut youth hostel prices and ban hotels from raising prices by more than 50 per cent during Labour Day. The measures further endeared Zibo to Chinese travellers, who are used to price gouging during busy holiday periods.