The rapid rise of ‘red tourism’ in China

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The rapid rise of ‘red tourism’ in China

May 3, 2021
Growing up in Guang’an, Zhang Yiwen always felt a closeness to late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who spent the first 15 years of his life inher home city in the country’s western province of Sichuan.

Zhang knows Deng’s stories like the back of her hand and enjoys recounting them for visitors to the Communist revolutionary’s former residence, where she’s worked as a guide for the last 11 years.

“Grandpa Deng has a great image in our heart,” Zhang tells CNN, using the local nickname for the man who, as paramount leader from the late 1970s until his death in 1997, is credited with modernizing and opening up China.

Zhang’s passion for all things Deng, combined with her storytelling skills, has helped her win competitions and national recognition.

In late 2020, she was one of the two people from Sichuan chosen to join the nationwide “Five Good Guides” program, one of several initiatives from the Chinese government to improve and highlight the country’s rapidly booming “red tourism” industry.

Ministry of Culture and Tourism officials handpicked 100 of the country’s top tour guides working in so-called “red sites” — locations with historical and cultural significance to the ruling Communist Party’s history.

The chosen ones traveled to Beijing to receive further training aimed at equipping them with skills to be, as the government puts it, “a firm inheritor of the red gene, a wonderful storyteller of red stories, a vivid interpreter of the red spirit, a loyal disseminator of the red culture and a powerful leader of the red trend.”

Tourists pose in front a flag of the Communist Party in Shaoshan, in central China’s Hunan province in 2016.

Although the concept of “red tourism” has been around for decades, it wasn’t officially included in the country’s national tourism plan until 2004. Some analysts say it presents a doctored version of history — others going so far as to call it outright brainwashing.

China’s current strongman leader Xi Jinping has promoted “red tourism” numerous times since coming to power in late 2012, fueling rapid growth of this once niche segment among local governments and domestic tourists.

As a result, “red sites” have expanded greatly across the country in recent years — spotlighting everything from memorials to the Communist revolution to trees planted by Communist leaders.

Pandemic gives ‘red tourism’ a lift

With the global travel market still hindered by the pandemic and Chinese tourists forced to stay home, domestic travelers have given the “red tourism” industry a boost.

“In 2020, the number of red tourists exceeded 100 million and contributed to 11% of domestic travel,” says Mimi Li, associate professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and an expert on Chinese tourism policy.

“That’s quite phenomenal.”

The timing couldn’t be better for travel industry players hoping to capitalize on this growing segment, with the country gearing up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in July. More “red tourism” initiatives are being rolled out almost weekly to coincide with this milestone — in both state and private sectors.

Staged in Yan’an, the “Red Show” highlights the Communist Party’s hard-fought early victories, featuring jaw-dropping acrobatics as well as elaborate song-and-dance numbers in a high-tech theater.

Ctrip, China’s largest travel booking platform, launched 100 unique routes for “red pilgrims” earlier this year. Some of the packaged tours include experiences like reciting the admission oath for the Chinese Communist Party and singing revolutionary songs.

The company predicted the campaign would attract 50 million travelers in 2021.

“Most researchers classify red tourism as a type of heritage tourism. For some of the red sites like Jinggangshan or Yan’an, red tourism is almost a guaranteed income,” says Li, referring to two famous former Communist revolutionary bases.

CNN recently visited Yan’an in northern Shaanxi province as part of a government-led trip and witnessed throngs of visitors — some donning revolutionary attire — cramming into former residences of Communist leaders, auditoriums for past party congresses and countless exhibition halls.

Droves of party members retook their admission oath — “be ready at all times to sacrifice my all for the party and the people, and never betray the party” — in ritualistic fashion, while schoolchildren received open-air lectures on why history chose the Communists to rule China.

Unsurprisingly, Yan’an officials are eager to promote their city’s biggest selling point with bold investments. A shiny airport, rows of new hotels and even a billboard advertising the upcoming opening of a Starbucks dot the former economic backwater.

Their effort appeared to have paid off before the pandemic. In 2019, more than 73 million visitors flocked to the city of just over two million residents, nearly doubling the tourist figure just three years earlier.

With the Covid-19 virus mostly contained within China, Yan’an tourism bounced back during the weeklong May Day holiday this year, with tourist spending already surpassing that in the same period before the pandemic, according to local authorities.

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