Despite getting a little tanned, Li Jiaoyang, a 42-year-old arts professional from Beijing, still relishes the leisurely strolls and taste of ripe mulberries amid the tangle of alleys in the ancient city of Kashgar in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
It is her first long-distance journey outside Beijing since the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic broke out. She has been traveling in Xinjiang for about two weeks and plans to stay longer.
The epidemic control measures are still in place, Li says. "But they are reasonable and necessary. Most importantly, you can enjoy some good hotel discounts."
As one of the sectors hit hardest by the epidemic, tourism is making a gradual comeback in China with more and more visitors like Li venturing outdoors. The 10th China Tourism Day, which falls on May 19 each year, witnessed smart efforts to deal with the fallout from the virus.
As epidemic risks are subdued in China, most of the tourism destinations including museums and parks across the country have reopened. The pent-up demand of millions of tourists and supportive government policies are rebooting the country's tourism market.
The Shanghai Disneyland theme park reopened to visitors with reduced capacity on May 11, the first Disneyland theme park in the world that has resumed operations since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Regular epidemic control measures are taken. Many scenic spots across the country control the number of visitors, while launching an online reservation system to receive visitors at staggered time periods and dispersing crowds at key areas in a timely fashion. At the Nalati grassland in Xinjiang, a giant head sculpture wears a tailor-made mask to remind people of the necessary virus prevention steps.
Global hospitality giant Hilton has reopened all of its hotels on the Chinese mainland with strict anti-epidemic measures. A marked accommodation recovery is being seen in short-distance tours of cities' nearby tourism spots during weekends and holidays, according to Qian Jin, area president of Hilton Greater China and Mongolia.
Official data showed that during the May Day holiday, the tourism market basically recovered to 50 percent of the level from the same period last year, with a total of 115 million domestic tourists and revenue of 47.56 billion yuan ($6.69 billion).
Blaze online, local trails
Many fresh endeavors are putting the travel experience online via social media platforms and livestreaming sites to engage potential tourists, covering everything from cherry blossoms in Wuhan to introductions of the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Online sales promotions of local produce and other tourism products are also gaining popularity. With the pet phase of "Just buy it!", many government officials and entrepreneurs became the brand ambassadors and top salespeople of their tourism products by championing them online.
The head of north Xinjiang's Xinyuan county sold local produce worth nearly 500,000 yuan in a livestreaming sales promotion in early April. James Liang, chairman of China's largest online travel agency (OTA) Trip.com Group, has personally put on different costumes to sell discounted hotel bookings. He had staged nine livestreaming sales since late March, with transactions totaling over 300 million yuan.
To minimize contagion risks, many local governments encourage travel to local or nearby tourism spots, with specific ticket discounts and consumption vouchers offered to local residents to boost the regional tourism market.
Regions such as the Inner Mongolia autonomous region even made "love your hometown and explore it" the theme of this year's China Tourism Day. Shanghai will leverage the reach of OTAs and social media platforms to help tourists discover more about the city's tourism resources and products.
The epidemic has pushed the fast-forward button for the tourism industry's evolution, market observers point out.
Besides reservation-based travel, self-driving tours will also enjoy a boost out of health concerns. Data from the China Tourism Academy (CTA) showed that some 64 percent of the surveyed travelers took self-driving tours during the May Day holiday. "It can eliminate a lot of contagion risks and give you more freedom during travel," says Li from Beijing, who took a road trip with her husband and has been sharing their self-driving tour tips with friends.
Smart travel services are in high demand. Yunnan province, Southwest China's tourism hub, has seen a surge in the use of its smart travel app that enables convenient online reservations, introductions, guides and reviews. Xinjiang also developed a similar app that was put into use before the May Day holiday.
Qian expects that the demand for quality travel, family bonding and upgraded consumption－which were suppressed by the epidemic－will become a driving force during the recovery.
However, relying on boosting the number of tickets and trips alone will not work, and technology, culture and service quality will be new growth engines, says CTA's head Dai Bin.