The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend

How have attitudes towards the outdoors changed in China in the past few years?

Interest in outdoor spaces has exploded in China. Before COVID, the concept of spending time in the outdoors was usually just a visit to a community park for a game of shuttlecock with friends or a few laps around the local university’s synthetic, red-painted track. But even before COVID, I saw an expansion of walking paths, like the walking trail in Chengjiang (a small town outside Kunming) and the lake loop trails encircling Suzhou’s Taihu lake and Dali’s Erhai lake. So the development of infrastructure started before COVID, and really sped up after that, to make these types of spaces available to people.

Interest in going beyond these walking paths only really took off during COVID. Particularly in 2020, when domestic travel in China reopened in full during the May Day national holiday, and with it the usual photos of popular tourist sites crammed with people. The reaction from many was unease – people didn’t want to be packed in with others in such a way, especially with the ongoing pandemic looming large. So people started looking to the countryside, and when they got there they discovered the beauty and tranquility of pure, unspoiled nature.

And that kind of enjoyment – hearing the birds sing, playing in a little mountain stream – once you’ve had it, there’s no way back. And so, the trend for outdoor travel took off, and I don’t think it’s reversible, which is a great thing.

How have attitudes towards the outdoors changed in China in the past few years?

I think that appreciation for nature and its beauty is a one-way street. If you’ve tasted the joy of watching a sunset from your tent, or the beat of the waves as you float on your kayak in the ocean, it’s really impossible to go back to the crowds of the tourist sites.

Once China’s borders open up again, places that have big, open landscapes will have lots of Chinese travelers. Think Africa, Australia, New Zealand; the national parks in America and Canada. These places have always drawn Chinese travelers, but I think they will be more popular than ever now.