How luxury has become the biggest travel trend in China

(CNN) – “Every grassland is covered with tents during the weekends,” said 26-year-old Yoga Song.

Glamping, a combination of the words “glamor” and “camping,” is the latest travel trend among young Chinese.

Over the past year, Song says she has taken more than 10 luxury trips in China, to both rural and suburban areas.

She embarked on her first camping trip in April of 2021, heading to Zhongwei, a city referred to as “East of Morocco”.

Located in the abandoned Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northern China, Zhongwei is home to the Yellow River, parts of the Great Wall, deserts, wetlands, and ancient villages.

When I went, the town was already full of boutique hotels and homestays. But Song chose to try something different: a tent.

When Song arrived, she said there were five tents just 10 meters from the bustling Yellow River, overlooking the Gobi Desert – the sixth largest desert in the world – on the other side.

But it did not go smoothly. The weather was very windy in Zhongwei, sending sand and pebbles flying in. As a result, all tourist sites were closed.

“That night, the people who run the luxury site called us to look at the stars,” she recalls. “When I came out of the tent, all the clouds that covered the sky at last dissipated. The sky was vast, full of starlight—all the stars I could imagine, and it was complete silence.”

With the hustle and bustle of city life, travelers are exposed to authentic and contemporary Northwest China. The hills here, surrounded by farms and pastures, offer travelers a chance to plant, harvest, and taste locally grown dates and wine grapes, Song says. Goats, oxen, and sheep come from time to time by the tents.

This famous luxury resort is located on top of Yongan Mountain in Hangzhou.

Xu Yu/Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Relaxing in nature

In the world’s most populous country, time spent in nature can mean intense mountain hikes, desert treks, or light picnics on the lawn of a park, and relaxing trips to the outskirts of town.

However, while young city dwellers crave fresh air and nature, many aren’t willing to give up comforts like soft mattresses.

Xiaohongshu, the country’s premier lifestyle website, is a major hidden hand driving the holiday fad as stylish camping-inspired posts pour into mobile feeds.

For many young Chinese, luxury camping is just the right activity for them Dhaka Lists – a buzzword describing netizens’ “clocking” of places to visit on Instagram.

The Chinese internet is dominated by thousands of detailed lists of luxury items, easy-to-make meal recipes, and recommendations for luxury camping destinations across the country.

Song recalls seeing a Marshall speaker and huge, handmade rugs inside her tent in Zhongwei.

Natural Camp, the operator of the site, proudly declares on its official account Xiaohongshu (Chinese social media site): “We maintain a good selection of overseas brands, both domestic and international.”

These include mattresses from King Koil – likely the same as those found in five-star hotel rooms – and outdoor furniture from high-end Scandinavian brand Tentipi.

An overnight stay costs about 1,000 yuan ($148) per person, Song says.

The trend doesn’t just happen in mainland China.

Wade Cheung, director of marketing at Saiyuen, a luxury island adventure park in Hong Kong, has also seen a huge increase in bookings over the past two years, with more than 10% of visitors returning after their first stay.

“The protracted epidemic has inspired Hong Kong residents to explore the wonderful experiences that originated locally in the city,” Cheung says.

The site, on Cheung Chau Island, offers various accommodation options, from tepees to Mongolian gers, but the most unique is Sunset Vista, a 300-square-foot domed tent set on a 2,000-square-foot lot with private grassland.

The dome sleeps four people in total and includes a private shower room, toilet, barbecue grill, hammock and more,

With a large window overlooking the ocean and an ideal location for stargazing, Sunset Vista has become a huge hit with Hong Kong bloggers and influencers.

A night in the tent costs about HK$3,500 (US$446) to HK$4,800 (US$611), on par with a night in a luxury hotel on Hong Kong Island.

Guests who prioritize comfort over nature have dominated this luxury camping site these days.

Cheung says the type of visitors they receive has evolved since the beginning of the epidemic. Before, visitors loved camping, hiking and nature, and they admired the air conditioners in the tents. Now, guests consider an air conditioner a must.

“For example, if there was a frog sitting in front of the tent, previous visitors would probably squat and take a picture with it, but for visitors nowadays it might become something they need to adapt to,” he adds.

View from inside the Saiyuen dome tent.

View from inside the Saiyuen dome tent.

Saiyuen

A fad that Covid feeds on

Glamping has been gaining momentum since Covid-19 first emerged. A report published by Chinese tour operator CTrip showed that searches for camping activities jumped eightfold in 2021.

During the May Day holiday of 2022, figures from another platform, Kunar, revealed that ticket sales for parks that allow camping in China rose more than 50% compared to the same period last year.

Bookings for homestays with families providing camping-related services such as RVs and tents also quadrupled in the country during the holiday compared to the same period last year, according to holiday rental website Tujia.

An adventurous picnic at the Saiyuen glamping site in Hong Kong.

An adventurous picnic at the Saiyuen glamping site in Hong Kong.

Saiyuen

Covid-19 has certainly played a role in this newfound enthusiasm for outdoor luxury experiences.

The initial outbreak in 2020 closed China’s borders, keeping Chinese tourists at home. It is estimated that recent Covid-19 outbreaks have slashed domestic travel by more than half, and people are vacationing close to home, as potential travel consequences have evolved from being barred from China to being barred from their home city.

By doubling down on its controversial “zero COVID” policy, China has imposed draconian measures including lockdowns and repeated rounds of mass testing to crack down on recent gatherings.

The mega-city of Shanghai has just emerged from a severe nine-week citywide lockdown, which has prevented all residents from leaving their apartments. In the capital, Beijing, an additional three weeks of “soft lockdown” has prompted millions of residents to work from their homes.

There are echoes of past epidemics in Hong Kong.

Nearly two decades ago, when SARS broke out in the city, Cheung went on his first local trips to hike and camp. Then he discovered that “Hong Kong is a fun place to explore”.

the call of the wild

While Song agrees that the rise of flamingo can be attributed to Covid-19 restrictions, which have led people to appreciate opportunities to connect with nature, she believes there is something more. Namely, the concept of “live wildly”.

“Many of the lifestyles we see on social media are very glamorous. Shanghai’s coffee culture, for example, is a bit dazzling. It set a precedent in the way we should ideally look, speak and live.”

Song notes that people are realizing that something is lacking in these lifestyles. Picnicking, which was popular before glamping became the new craze, is no longer able to satisfy the desire to connect with nature.

However, she carefully draws a line between “live wild” and “live in the wild”.

“Some of my friends can go camping on any mountain with just a backpack,” she says. “This is very difficult for me. At least, basic health and living conditions should not be sacrificed.”

The continued allure of spending time in the wild means that the fad of luxury is likely to remain here, but is expected to decline “to a stable level” after travel restrictions are eased,” Cheung notes.

Of those who visit Saiyuen, about 60% are families who “would still love to take their kids to a little island of adventure locally” during the weekends, he adds.

Top photo: The luxury Saiyuen Resort in Hong Kong is located on Cheung Chau Island. credit: Saiyuen

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