The allure of rural life and finding inner peace in a quiet, ancient town near grasslands and lakes, away from vehicles and laptops, drew a large number 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 TV soap opera Meet Yourself, in which the heroine, a white-collar urban worker, quits her job and moves to a boarding house in a small prefecture town after the death of her best friend, where during many ups and downs, she regains the courage to live and falls in love with an entrepreneur. With a score of 8.3 out of 10 on review aggregator Douban, the places the series’ main character visits and the things she experiences have drawn crowds of tourists to the locations where scenes were filmed.
A week after the series was first screened in early January, searches for Dali doubled on online travel agency Fliggy, and those for the ancient city of Shaxi, where many of the scenes were filmed, increased 10-fold, while related keywords became top searches on Sina Weibo repeatedly.
A female tourist from Zhuhai in Guangdong Province told Yunnan Daily that she came to visit the house where the main character lives in Fengyangi Village, saying she wanted to “experience the slow life of 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 does not know its exact location, she hopes to visit the tree under which the protagonist cries.
Dali, a region known for Cangshan Mountain, Erhai Lake and its ethnic Bai culture, received about 4.23 million tourist visits during the Lunar New Year holiday, up 219 percent year-on-year, with tourism revenue growing by 162 percent to 3.16 billion yuan ($465 million), according to data from the local culture and tourism bureau.
The boom is the result of changes in policies to prevent and control COVID-19 that have allowed people to escape to rediscover the long-lost thrill of travel after three years.
Brian Linden, a 60-year-old from the United States who runs the Linden Center Hotel in Dali’s Xizhou City, said he and his colleagues were busy hosting tourists from all over the world during the festival.
“Between 500 and 800 tourists come to visit every day and our yard is open to everyone. We had to control the flow of people so that our guests would not be affected,” he said, adding that some of the scenes in the show were shot at his hotel and many tourists wanted to see it.
Linden added that all rooms were fully booked before the festival and the hotel was expecting revenue higher than the festivals of the last two years combined. It offered guests a variety of experiences, including tie-dyeing and dragon dancing, and about a quarter of bookings were not from China.
“Optimizing COVID-19 policies for the tourism sector is a good idea. “None of us have had any serious symptoms and I feel safe here,” Linden said. “Many Chinese and foreigners have returned to people-to-people exchange, which is a good opportunity to learn the real history of China.”
However, he added that the boom may not be sustainable and that controlling costs during the off-season is complicated for business operators.
Ye Yijiao, who runs a mid-range bed and breakfast in the ancient town of Shuanglang near Erhai Lake, said all of her 12 rooms were booked about a month before the festival.
“It has been a long time since it has been so difficult for tourists to find an empty room here,” she said, adding that the price of her rooms was three times higher than previous Spring Festivals, reaching an average of about 1,500 yuan per night.
Yeh attributed the demand to fewer travel restrictions and the effect of the TV show.
“Most tourists stayed between one and three days, taking pictures and wandering around the city. The show reminded them of the slow and relaxed way of life,” she said. “The lake enjoys sunshine all year round and people find poetry here.”
She added that while most people have recovered from COVID-19 and the economy is also recovering, she is positive about future business after the holiday rush.
Yan Shulin, head of Shaxi City, said the soap opera shows visitors elements of Bai culture, as well as the beauty and achievements of Shaxi’s rural revitalization.
He said the tourism boom also poses challenges for the small town of 20,000 in terms of infrastructure and services, as well as how to preserve its quiet, simple life, adding that the village plans to develop tourism, 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, rituals and family traditions handed down for thousands of years that cannot be fully explained by one show. So we will add these elements to future tourism products so that the short-term boost becomes long and deep.”