Tourists enjoy the natural beauty of Erhai Lake in Dali, Yunnan province, during the Spring Festival holiday on Jan 23. [Photo/China Daily]
The appeal of country life and finding inner peace in a quiet, ancient town close to grasslands and lakes, far from vehicles and laptops, drew large numbers of tourists to Yunnan province's Dali Bai autonomous prefecture during this year's Spring Festival.
This romantic life in Dali was recently vividly depicted in the popular television soap opera Meet Yourself, in which the heroine, an urban white-collar worker quits her job and moves to a bed-and-breakfast in a small town in the prefecture following the death of her best friend, where during the course of many ups and downs, she regains the courage to live and falls in love with an entrepreneur. Scoring 8.3 out of 10 on the review aggregator Douban, the places the show's main character visits and the things she experiences have attracted hordes of tourists to localities where scenes were shot.
A week after the show was first screened in early January, searches for Dali doubled on online travel agency Fliggy, and those for Shaxi ancient town, where many of the scenes were shot, surged 10-fold, while associated keywords became top searches on Sina Weibo on multiple occasions.
One tourist from Zhuhai in Guangdong province, told Yunnan Daily that she had come to visit the location of the house where the main character lives in Fengyangyi village, saying she wanted to "experience the slow life in Dali".
Mi Dou, who drove from Chengdu in neighboring Sichuan province, told Chengdu.cn that she waited in line for an hour to visit the house. She also said that although she didn't know its precise location, she hoped to visit the tree under which the main character famously cries.
Dali, a region famous for the Cangshan Mountain, Erhai Lake and its Bai ethnic culture, received some 4.23 million tourist visits during the Lunar New Year holiday, up 219 percent year-on-year, with tourism revenue growing 162 percent to 3.16 billion yuan ($465 million), according to data from the local culture and tourism bureau.
The boom resulted from changes to COVID-19 prevention and control policies that permitted people to rush out to rediscover the long-lost excitement of traveling after three years.
Brian Linden, a 60-year-old from the United States who runs the Linden Center Hotel in Xizhou town in Dali, said that he and his colleagues were busy receiving tourists from around the world during the festival.
"Between 500 to 800 tourists have come to visit every day and our courtyard is open to every one. We had to control the flow of people so that our guests would not be affected," he said, adding that some of the show's scenes were shot in his hotel, and many tourists wanted to have a look.
Linden added that all the rooms had been fully booked before the festival, and the hotel was expecting revenues higher than the festivals of the last two years combined. It was offering guests a variety of experiences, including tie-dyeing and dragon dancing, and about a quarter of the bookings were non-Chinese.
"Optimizing COVID-19 policies for the tourism sector is a good idea. None of us have had serious symptoms and I feel safe here," Linden said. "Many Chinese and foreigners have returned to people-to-people exchanges, which are a good opportunity to learn the true story of China."
However, he added the boom may not be sustainable and that controlling costs during the off season is complicated for business operators.
Ye Yijiao, who runs a medium-end bed-and-breakfast in the ancient town of Shuanglang near Erhai Lake, said that all of her 12 rooms were booked about a month before the festival.
"It has been a long time since tourists have found it so difficult to find an empty room here," she said, adding that the price of her rooms is three times higher than previous Spring Festivals, reaching an average of some 1,500 yuan per night.
Ye attributed the demand to fewer travel restrictions and the effect of the television show.
"Most tourists stayed for between one and three days, taking photos and wandering around the town. The show reminded them of the slow and tranquil lifestyle," she said. "The lake enjoys sunshine year round and here, people find poetry."
She added that while most people have recovered from COVID-19 and the economy is also bouncing back, she is positive about future business after the holiday peak.
Yang Shulin, head of Shaxi town, said the soap opera showed elements of Bai culture, as well as the beauty and achievements of Shaxi's rural vitalization to visitors.
He said that the tourism boom also posed challenges for the small town of 20,000 people in terms of infrastructure and services, as well as how to retain its quiet, simple life, adding that the village plans to develop hiking, camping, digital exhibitions and Bai opera performances, as well as projects for children to interact with nature, to enhance the visitor experience.
"Besides the natural beauty you saw in the soap opera, there are our customs, rites and family traditions passed down for thousands of years, which can't be explained fully by one show. So we will add those elements to future tourism products, so that the short-term boost becomes long and deep."