Travel back in time
How have Chinese people’s traveling habits changed since China’s reform and opening-up？
China has, in just the past few decades, become one of the largest tourism markets in the world. According to statistics released by National Bureau of Statistics, the number of trips made by domestic travelers rose from 524 million in 1994 to 5 billion in 2017. The number of overseas visits of Chinese citizens also increased from 3.73 million in 1994 to 135.13 million in 2016. But this was not the case in the 1970s and 1980s, when the concept of traveling was still unfamiliar to most ordinary Chinese residents. To glean insight into how China’s reform and opening-up policy has changed the idea of traveling among Chinese citizens, the Global Times recently interviewed different generations of locals and invited them to share their travel experience from childhood to the present.
For Chinese seniors born and raised in a more closed and frugal social environment, their childhood memories relating to travel are rare. Zeng Aiai, 58-year-old, was born in a family with six siblings in Dongtou, a district in Wenzhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province. She said traveling was “just a dream” in her childhood and adolescence.
“In the 1960s, food was supplied and distributed in a planned way. Wearing a beautiful dress was a rare treat. We didn’t have the concept of traveling at that time,” she told the Global Times.
Her first travels happened when she was 17, and her destination was to Taishun, a nearby county in Wenzhou. “I had just graduated from middle school at that time. The hot springs in Taishun are very famous.”
Similarly, 68-year-old Shanghainese Yu Kehui only had one travel experience in her childhood. “In 1956, my mother took me to visit my elder sister in Beijing, as my sister was about to give birth. I was only five. We visited Tian’anmen Square and Beihai Park, and that was an unforgettable memory,” she said.
Yu added that transportation in the 1960s was still inconvenient; for instance, it took her around 36 hours from Shanghai to Beijing by train. Around 1966, Yu went up to Beijing again. She noticed that before her train crossed the Yangtze River in Nanjing, East China’s Jiangsu Province, the train had to be disassembled into several parts and transported by ferries.
“After crossing the river, the train parts would be re-assembled into a whole train,” she explained. But as their income and living standards improved with the development of China, traveling gradually entered into their life.
Seeing the world
Around 1997, Yu had an opportunity to visit to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. “Traveling abroad was really rare in China at that time. I had the opportunity through my company. My colleague and I joined a travel group of around 10 Chinese people,” Yu told the Global Times.
In recent years, Yu and her husband, as well as her son, frequently go on self-driving tours to different regions of China. Apart from domestic travel, Yu has also been to around 19 foreign countries and regions, including Egypt, the US, France, Portugal, Spain and Indonesia.
“When I first traveled abroad in 1997, I didn’t feel Chinese people were respected overseas. But nowadays I can feel foreigners’ attitude towards Chinese travelers become friendlier,” she said.
Likewise, Zeng’s desire to explore China and the world began after retirement. “My financial situation and good health allow me to travel. I also would like to go out more to see the world,” Zeng said. “My first overseas travel was to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, and my second overseas travel was in 2009 to Bali Island in Indonesia with my family.”
In 1995, the number of overseas travelers in China only ranked 17th globally. But from 2013 to 2016, the number of Chinese travelers abroad stayed the largest in the world, xinhuanet.com reported in October 2018.
With the rise of overseas traveling in and out of China, Chinese tourists’ traveling habits also have changed with the times. According to a 2018 industry report by Chinese online traveling website mafengwo.com, independent travel has become hugely popular with Chinese tourists, visiting 1.45 foreign countries and regions on average, sohu.com reported in October 2018.
Notably, the report also revealed that more and more Chinese tourists are looking for authentic and high-quality
experiences in foreign destinations (as opposed to following a planned tour group). The trend is more obvious among the younger generations.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ding Xuyan, a woman born in Wenzhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province, is enthusiastic about overseas independent traveling.
“I have been to Russia, Spain, the UK, South Korea and Thailand,” Ding said, adding that she now travels abroad twice or three times a year; her spending on travel accounts for around 10 percent of her total annual income.
Ding said Chinese of her generation tend to arrange their travel plans online. “With travel mobile apps, I can easily order tickets and hotels abroad with a few clicks on my phone. The advancement of technology enables me to travel abroad whenever I’d like,” she said.
Compared with senior interviewees like Zeng and Yu, who prefer natural landscapes or famous tourist spots, Ding said she prefers to visit museums and galleries in foreign cities, learning about the local culture and architecture, instead of just going to popular tourist attractions.
Ding also likes to travel with a theme. “Earlier this year, my friends and I traveled to Spain under the theme of wine and Michelin-starred restaurants. We went to time-honored chateaus in Spain, and enjoyed high-quality dishes,” she told the Global Times.
“Learning about the cultural difference between countries is the most meaningful thing I get from traveling,” Ding said. “In recent years, I have strongly felt that foreigners are respecting and admiring Chinese people more. When some foreigners find out I am a Chinese, they become very interested and ask me about my culture.”
A normal part of life
For Generation-Z Chinese born after 1995, who grew up in a more prosperous and open society, traveling happens much earlier in their lives, and their travel scale also becomes wider and more diverse.
Xia Zhangwenjia, the granddaughter of Zeng, grew up in Shanghai and had been to around 37 Chinese cities and 50 foreign countries and regions by the tender age of 10. She said traveling is a normal part of her life, like school or playing.
She explained that she first traveled abroad when she was only 11 months old; she currently prefers domestic cities during short holidays, and traveling abroad twice or three times a year for winter and summer holidays.
One of her most unforgettable travel experience was to South America during Spring Festival of 2017. “In the first few days, we traveled to Peru and Bolivia, both which have long histories. But when we arrived in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, we found the city was very modern. Then we also went to Ushuaia, which is known as ‘the end of the world’.”
Xia also has an abundant collection of souvenirs from different parts of the world sitting on her bookshelf. “Every country has its own unique history, culture and ethnic customs. So when traveling to a country, I like to buy local clothing and pose for pictures,” she said.
Likewise, nine-year-old Shanghainese girl Xu Ziqing has been to seven Chinese cities and eight foreign countries and regions, including Japan, Indonesia, Singapore the US and the UK. Xu enjoys traveling and considers it a normal part of her life. Her first trip was to Singapore at the age of four.
“I travel abroad four times per year and once or twice domestically,” Xu said, adding she prefers overseas traveling, as the landscapes and cultures in other countries and regions are more unique.
Her most unforgettable travel experience was a six-day skiing trip in Hokkaido, Japan. “I went there with five of my friends and our mothers. It’s exciting to learn real skiing; I skied from the very top of a mountain to the bottom,” she said. “We also enjoyed the beautiful ‘lavender sea’ in Hokkaido and ate local ice cream.”
This story was written by Wang Han based on two Global Times videos.
Clockwise from top left: An old picture of Yu Kehui on China’s Great Wall; Ding Xuyan (third from left) at a cooking class in Spain; Zeng Aiai (right) poses for photos with her husband on a volcano.