What happened to Zibo when heat faded and will Harbin be next?

Lu Feiran
While the Heilongjiang Province city is enjoying tourism fever, the one in Shandong seems to have been forgotten. But there's an optimistic outlook in this tale of two cities
Lu Feiran

While Harbin in Heilongjiang Province has become the jewel in the crown for tourists, Zibo in Shandong Province now resembles a has-been star.

Just six months ago, the Shandong city's tourism soar to its peak with a barbecue season – for the first third quarters of last year, the city attracted more than 24 million tourists, almost five times its own population.

When winter came, however, Harbin soon replaced Zibo to become most talked about travel destination in China, and the latter seemed to have been forgotten. Now with Harbin occupying the headlines every day, a question is being raised: Will Harbin become the next Zibo?

According to Zibo's local businesses, the watershed occurred after the National Day holiday in October.

A taxi driver surnamed Ma told Chengdu-based Hongxing News that for the first half of the year, he was always busy during work hours, from afternoon to midnight. He had passengers "from every corner of the city," and on average could earn 1,000 yuan (US$140) a day.

But from October 9, the second day after the National Day holiday, everything changed.

"The income was down tenfold from the night before, and since then it kept that way," he told Hongxing News.

It was the same situation at barbecue shops, which had boosted tourism in Zibo in the first place. As barbecue is usually more popular in summer, many shops in Zibo had to cut costs in the slack season.

A shop owner surnamed Zhou told Hongxing News he had to lay off two thirds of the employees, who later either became couriers or takeaway deliverymen.

"We don't know if the tourist wave will be back next spring and summer," he said. "I will invite everyone back if the business gets better."

What happened to Zibo when heat faded and will Harbin be next?

Zibo in Shandong Province enjoyed a massive tourist wave last spring to summer because of its barbecues.

The tourist wave turned to Harbin, despite a slow start. On December 18, the Harbin Ice and Snow World, China's most popular ice attraction, faced protests from visitors, who wanted refunds after waiting for hours to get on the grand ice slide, an attraction that had been much promoted online.

But because of good services and proper promotion, the northern city rapidly became a hotspot. The three-day New Year's Day Holiday alone witnessed a record more than 3 million visitors in Harbin.

What happened to Zibo when heat faded and will Harbin be next?

The Harbin Snow and Ice World is one of China's most popular winter attractions.

So what led to Zibo and Harbin's success and what's next for them?

Liu Deyan, associate professor at the College of Tourism at Shanghai Normal University, said the popularity of the two cities was brought about by various factors.

"The two cities had some similarities," she said. "Both of them once relied on heavy industry and are now seeking industrial transformation, so that they found tourism to be a breakthrough."

The popularity of Zibo was actually an extension of COVID-19. Back then, a group of university students were quarantined in Zibo and were warmly welcomed by locals. Before they left, the local government sent them off with a barbecue party, and that was the beginning of the barbecue heat in the city.

"It seemed that an accidental event provoked a nationwide tourism boom to Zibo, but actually the city was well prepared," she said. "They grasped the chance and welcomed tourists with sincerity and well-equipped facilities."

Meanwhile, Harbin has better tourism resources than Zibo so it was even easier for it to complete the transformation.

"The refund incident had much negative influences, but locals managed to comeback with practical measures to improve services, which proved that Harbin is able to receive tourists with better services and that's why it became the 'star of the season,'" Liu said.

What happened to Zibo when heat faded and will Harbin be next?

Harbin received a record number of tourists for the New Year's Day holiday.

Liu is optimistic about the two cities' future despite that the wave of heat eventually passing – or technically speaking, getting back to normal.

"In the summer Zibo actually welcomed many more tourists than it could actually handle, and now everything is being back to its regular state, but we can't say that nothing has changed," she said.

"Before, many people may have never heard of the city and when they went to Shandong, they wouldn't put it on their plan-to-visit list, but now many people choose to stop by there and that's already made a difference."

Now many other provinces and cities are eyeing the success of the two cities. Tourism authorities from Sichuan, Henan and Hebei have all released new promotion videos, hoping that they could attract next wave of tourism heat.

And Zibo is waiting as well – as it's getting warmer, barbecue shops are getting ready again and they believe that spring will be back eventually.

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