Anyone who has lived in China for a long time should travel during the annual “Golden Week.” It’s the only way to really understand what it means to be among the Chinese, says DW’s Frank Sieren.
Anyone who came to Beijing to see the Forbidden City will have been disappointed on the second day of the national holiday week. The Golden Week began on October 1, the anniversary of the 1949 foundation of People’s Republic of China.
The daily contingent of 20,000 of tickets was sold out within two hours – 166 tickets were sold per minute. It’s the kind of sales numbers museums around the world can only dream of.
There are currently some 600 million Chinese tourists out and about – that’s 7.5 times the population of Germany. And they’re not only in Beijing but visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an and Huashan Mountain in Shanxi province. Some 500 tourists had to sleep at the top of the mountain itself because strong winds made it temporarily unsafe to use the cable car. Pictures showed masses of tourists at the Great Wall of China, packed together like sardines.
No longer the factory of the world
The government will be particularly pleased by the pictures. It wants to shake off the image that China is the factory of the world and show that the country is transforming into a services economy. To show that this is a “golden” era. On the first day of the Golden Week, over 14 million people took the train. Chinese state television said that over 500 extra trains had been put into operation. Even though tickets were twice as expensive as normal, there were still takers.
While there were 15 percent more train passengers than in 2015, the number of air passengers rose over 6 percent to 960,000. By the end of the holiday week, 600 million tourists will have spent the equivalent of over $70 billion, an average of $125 per family, according to the National Tourism Administration. That is an increase of 13.5 percent compared to 2015. Not peanuts, even by Western standards.
Boosting the economy with national holidays
The Golden Week was introduced in 2000 to boost domestic consumption. Apart from the New Year’s vacation, it is the only time when workers have a week off. The fact that it is better for the economy for them to consume rather than work may appear strange at first, but in a time of overproduction this is not so surprising. On the contrary, state companies are stockpiling less while seasonal workers earn more income during the week. China’s inhabitants, especially those in rural areas, have to get used to consumption.
Some of the money will not help the Chinese economy, however, since it will go into the economies of Japan, South Korea or Thailand, which number among the 10 most popular destinations for Chinese travelers. Ctrip, an online travel portal, reported that Morocco is one of the popular destinations this year. Visa applications have increased by 3,500 percent since last year. Britain, Russia and New Zealand have also seen a 60 percent increase in tourism from China. About 60 million Chinese people traveled abroad in the first half of the year.
The economy is not suffering to such an extent that the government would do well to restrict travel abroad. Moreover, if there are more Chinese tourists abroad, the domestic tourism industry might not collapse under the pressure. Chinese tourists seem to like gathering in huge numbers in one place, the louder and more closely packed together the better. So for me and a few others who are happy to see the Great Wall of China from the outside, there is heavenly peace. Then again, maybe life isn’t that different for German tourists on the island Mallorca. Even in the high season, they can choose between the busy streets and secluded bays.
DW’s Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.