For many Chinese, Harbin conjures up images of ice and steel, a city that is both cold and harsh.
But this winter, the heavily industrialized city transformed into a warm and welcoming host, attracting record numbers of visitors, mainly from southern China.
During the three-day New Year period from December 30 to January 1, Harbin received more than three million tourist visits, a common tourism measure in China, generating tourism revenue of about 5.914 billion Chinese yuan (830 million dollars), according to the Harbin Tourism and Cultural Broadcasting Bureau.
Where the ‘tourist is god’
Harbin’s winter festivities attracted Shanghai resident Yuying Zhang to the city, she said. But in the end, she said she was more enamored of the residents than the city’s famous ice sculptures.
The day he arrived, Zhang said, he booked a taxi through Didi, a cashless transportation app in China.
“However, after recognizing our southern accent, the driver insisted on giving us a free ride and even offered to transfer our money to us,” Zhang said in Mandarin, translated by CNBC. “He said he was happy to see so many visitors from the south in Harbin.”
Southerners arrive dressed in winter clothing to visit Harbin.
Source: Yuying Zhang
Zhang said that although he rejected the driver’s offer, the gesture lifted his spirits and set the tone for the rest of his trip.
In a variation of the Japanese phrase “the customer is God,” Harbin’s government website states “the tourist is God,” highlighting how tourists are viewed in the city.
In a letter to residents in December, the city government asked locals to “accept this overwhelming affection and put our guests first, treating them with the utmost respect and kindness.”
“Whether it is guiding them carefully, warmly answering their questions, offering them a bowl of ginger tea, or taking them on our way, we can do our best to fully show the authentic hospitality of the people of Harbin.”
Tourists walking on Harbin Central Street on January 9, 2024.
Zhang Tao | Xinhua News Agency | fake images
He said residents heeded the call. On Harbin’s Central Street, volunteers handed out hot ginger tea, while others wore signs around their necks offering free travel tips, specifically for tourists from southern China.
Pharmacies sold single doses of medicine to travelers and restaurants served free frozen pears to waiting customers, cut into pieces, catering to the Southern preference for smaller bites.
Restaurants serve free frozen pears cut the way southern Chinese prefer to eat them.
Source: Yuying Zhang
The government even placed mats along Central Street’s underground pedestrian walkways to protect visitors from falls. The move sparked comments on social media, with one local commenting: “My mother said she has lived in Harbin for 60 years and she has never seen this happen before.”
“It seems like all of Harbin’s industries are pivoting toward tourism, making way for visitors all the time,” Zhang said. “It’s as if tourists here are like visiting children at someone else’s house, where the host brings them the best snacks, while asking his own children to give way.”
All of the travelers interviewed by CNBC said social media rumors about Harbin influenced their decision to visit, and many said the nickname given to them by northern Chinese, “Little Taters of the South,” was additional motivation to visit. travel north.
Tourists from the more temperate regions of southern China, who tend to be shorter than their northern counterparts, often bundle up in thick jackets, fur-lined hats and large scarves, giving them a potato-like appearance, they say. the locals.
The stocky, bundled appearance of Harbin’s tourists, many of them from southern China, led locals to call them “Little Potatoes of the South,” a nickname that was widely discussed on Chinese social media.
Andrea Verdelli | Bloomberg | fake images
“When I initially read the term, the words seemed kind of cold, but when you’re around [locals] and you experience his kindness, you start to find the nickname ‘Little Tater’ quite cute,” Zhang said.
Tourists’ new nickname for Harbin, the shorter “Rbin,” has also spread across Chinese social media, representing their newfound affection for the city.
A broader plan to use social media to publicize Harbin and the larger Heilongjiang province may be at play.
He Jing, head of the Heilongjiang Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism, told China Central Television that his department has focused on the use of social media “since early 2023.”
Big crowds, long lines
The opening day of Harbin Ice and Snow World, part of the larger festival, on December 18, attracted more than 40,000 visitors.
Due to overwhelming participation, many of the park’s attractions required queues for several hours. The most popular attraction, the giant slide, required waiting in line for approximately five to six hours.
Some attendees of the 2024 festivities in Harbin complained about long lines.
Source: Yuetong Jiang
Several visitors expressed their discontent online, highlighting the discomfort of waiting in temperatures of -20 degrees Celsius, leading some to demand a refund for their tickets.
The Harbin government quickly apologized in a published letter and promised to improve wait times, although several travelers told CNBC that long lines remain a problem.
Yuetong Jiang said that during his mid-January visit to the Ice and Snow World park, average wait times were two to three hours per attraction, with temperatures fluctuating between 4 and 24 degrees Celsius.
“You can’t even take your hands out of your coat to take a photo or scroll through your phone because of the extreme cold,” he said.
Harbin Ice and Snow World, at night.
Andrea Verdelli | Bloomberg | fake images
Jiang said he was worried the wait time wouldn’t be worth it, but after his trips he said the time spent in line was justified.
“The wait for the two attractions felt quick in retrospect, and there was a feeling of happiness when they were over, as if the memory of the queues had been put aside,” he said.
Zhang, however, was discouraged by the long lines she saw online. She then decided to visit a different ice festival in the nearby city of Changchun, in China’s Jilin province.
“I spent about 10 minutes waiting in line for the most popular giant slide attraction and ended up going up three times,” Zhang said.
The national holiday draw
Following the explosion of winter tourism in Harbin, other cities in China are starting to promote their own attractions on social media, with tourism bureau directors and celebrities appearing in online videos to attract visitors.
Wilson Zhou, an analyst at Bacui Capital Management, told CNBC: “Travel demand among Chinese people remains high… [but] “Domestic tourism is now chosen as a more profitable option.”
As China’s upcoming Spring Festival approaches, the surge in travel to northeast China shows no signs of slowing down.
Trip.com data shows a more than tenfold year-on-year increase in cold-weather destinations, with northern cities such as Harbin, Mudanjiang, Changchun and Baishan becoming particularly popular destinations.