WildChina > In the News > The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend

For their August 2022 issue, Vogue China selected five experts to speak on the growing interest in outdoor recreation that’s sweeping Chinese social media.

The experts selected were trail runner Zhang Yuan, finisher of the Transgrancanaria, a 128-kilometer trail race with 7500 meters of elevation gain in Gran Canaria; professional mountaineer Huan Chungui, who has completed the prestigious “Seven Summits” and trekked to both the North and South poles; long-distance motorcyclist Cao Xiaochuan, who made the 2000-kilometer pilgrimage from Dali to Lhasa by motorcycle through unforgiving mountain passes in Yunnan and Tibet; outdoor sports photographer and soon-to-be hotelier Kate Bellum; and WildChina’s very own Mei Zhang.

After a round-the-world backpacking trip, Mei Zhang resigned from her job at McKinsey to found her own company, WildChina Travel, with the dream of providing sustainable, highly customized, off-the-beaten-path travel experiences for worldwide adventurers. 

This spark of passion for the outdoors turned into an inextinguishable flame, one that she hopes to pass on by creating a bridge between cultures into the natural spaces of the globe – starting, of course, with China.

The Vogue China piece is only in Chinese, so marketing manager Kendra Tombolato sat down with Mei to explore China’s burgeoning interest in the outdoors for an English-speaking audience.

How have attitudes towards the outdoors changed in China in the past few years?

Interest in outdoor spaces has exploded in China. Before COVID, the concept of spending time in the outdoors was usually just a visit to a community park for a game of shuttlecock with friends or a few laps around the local university’s synthetic, red-painted track. But even before COVID, I saw an expansion of walking paths, like the walking trail in Chengjiang (a small town outside Kunming) and the lake loop trails encircling Suzhou’s Taihu lake and Dali’s Erhai lake. So the development of infrastructure started before COVID, and really sped up after that, to make these types of spaces available to people.

Interest in going beyond these walking paths only really took off during COVID. Particularly in 2020, when domestic travel in China reopened in full during the May Day national holiday, and with it the usual photos of popular tourist sites crammed with people. The reaction from many was unease – people didn’t want to be packed in with others in such a way, especially with the ongoing pandemic looming large. So people started looking to the countryside, and when they got there they discovered the beauty and tranquility of pure, unspoiled nature.

And that kind of enjoyment – hearing the birds sing, playing in a little mountain stream – once you’ve had it, there’s no way back. And so, the trend for outdoor travel took off, and I don’t think it’s reversible, which is a great thing.

Just last week actually, I posted a video on my Little Red Book of my house in Maine. It’s an old wood cabin, so it’s not fancy, but I wanted to show how easy it is to access nature. It’s surrounded by forest – you can smell the balsam firs – and just a few hundred yards down to the lake and a few hundred more to amazing hiking trails in Acadia National Park.

The reaction I got from some Chinese viewers on Little Red Book was “Wow this is great” and “This is my dream house,” but a lot more said things like “This is so scary, like a horror film,” commenting that “It’s so isolated, so dangerous” and asking “Are there mosquitoes there?”

Seeing these reactions, I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. People have been isolated from nature for so long that there is this huge fear factor. This type of attitude is stopping people from embracing nature in China, and I think it’s a process to reverse that, so I’m happy to see the change starting.

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang
Mei Zhang hiking with Paul Salopek on a Yunnan section of the Out of Eden Walk

What does an outdoor escape in China look like nowadays and who is doing it?

(1) The very urban stay on the jogging tracks in the city.

(2) The slightly more outdoorsy city-dwellers drive to the nearest forest park or temple complex, but these places are ticketed and usually have signs saying “stay off the grass.” The outdoor space is limited to picnicking on a stone table (granted it’s usually beautifully crafted), so it’s a very mild version of the outdoors.

(3) For those who want to go a little further afield, they go to the national scenic areas like Jiuzhaigou or Zhangjiajie. These are huge government administered scenic sites, on par with some of America’s smaller national parks. The difference is that China’s park management is focused on conservation and tourism management, but they are kept completely separate. So the conservation area is not accessible for regular people – only authorized conservationists. For the tourists, there is a separate limited area paved with beautifully maintained walking paths and roads. This, in my eyes, is not a good strategy for long term conservation.

Jiuzhaigou is the perfect example of this. The layout resembles a road system in the shape of the letter Y. There are a series of turquoise ponds that you can visit, but you can only visit them by riding the electric busses that cart tourists through the park. So you hop on and off the bus to snap photos. You point your phone at the lake, you get a great photo, but if you turned your phone around, you’d get a photo of the hundreds of people also at that exact spot. This is a very common experience across all of China’s scenic parks. So, it’s not ideal for anyone interested in a wild nature experience.

Here I would like to personally appeal to the government administrators running China’s national parks. They have all the tools at their disposal, they have the ability to manage permits or geolocate hikers in the park for safety. Many of these tools are readily available, so I hope these officials will find progressive ways to allow people into nature beyond the standard tourist routes. Because I personally believe that people who are interested in nature are a huge untapped resource for conservation and giving them access is the first step.

Allow them to fall in love with nature so they will want to protect that love. I think the government can do a lot more here, and I hope they will tap into this nature-interest trend. If this happens, I really believe that conservation will just completely take off.

(4) The final type are those who get out onto China’s mountains and trails. There are thousands of miles of trails, used and created by locals for hundreds of years, some carved out by the hooves of packhorses carting trading goods, others shaped by the feet of local farmers. So there is this incredible landscape interwoven with human existence and nature that’s absolutely stunning but very hard to access for anyone who isn’t a local. There’s very little organized infrastructure – no written information, no guidebooks, and no official channels through which to apply for a permit to hike or camp.

As for who is getting out there and going for this more intrepid option, it’s mostly the younger generation, those in their 20s and 30s, and young families.

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang
Mei Zhang hiking with Paul Salopek on a Yunnan section of the Out of Eden Walk

Is there an app in China for finding hiking trails? Like AllTrails or Komoot?

Yes, it’s called 两步路 (Liangbulu or Two-step Road). It’s a GPS crowdsourced hiking trail map app. The main complaint I’ve heard is that it drains your phone battery pretty quick, but other than that it has good feedback, which is great as there really isn’t any other information out there on where lots of these trails exist. That’s something I hope to change with my PhD on the Tea Horse Trail.

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang
Mei Zhang hiking with Paul Salopek on a Yunnan section of the Out of Eden Walk

I think everyone wants to look like they are from Seattle – it’s the ultimate look these days! But yes, the fascination with gear is universal including China. Regardless of my skill level I want to look like someone who’s summited Mount Everest. People are willing to invest big money in getting the gear before they invest in skills or experiences, and this is very widespread – I’m no exception.

The main outdoors brand in China is Kailas, which is similar to North Face or Patagonia with hiking boots, tents, etc. There are also smaller scale retailers, many in each city. People don’t often trust buying online as they need guidance on what to get, so they go in to these stores in person to shop. In Kunming there’s Meili, in Beijing there’s Sanfo, and some of these, like Sanfo, have started creating their own branded gear as well.

China also gets a lot of influence from Japan. These Japanese designs are absolutely beautiful – they have these water bottles in pastels, whites and grays, and cooking pots in pristine aluminum – basically it’s about the aesthetic.

These brands look beautiful, with earthen brown or white boots, but if you try to hike with them they are too heavy. I see this type of Japanese outdoors gear all over Little Red Book.  And they serve one purpose, for outdoor photographs because they look great. They’d maybe work for car camping, but for actual outdoor recreation the functionality is lacking.

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang
Mei Zhang hiking with Paul Salopek on a Yunnan section of the Out of Eden Walk

Speaking of car camping, now that I think about it I’ve never seen an RV in China. Is that something that’s taking off now as well?

I’ve never seen an RV either, or any enormous travel vehicles like that. But, I personally know someone, in her early 50s, who just bought a van and took off around China with her boyfriend for two months to far-flung places like Tibet and western Sichuan.

More and more people are starting to do this type of thing. These kinds of long-distance, life-changing journeys, stirred into the imagination by western literature and lifestyle, are trickling over into China. And with the great phone reception in China and steady cell signal almost everywhere, people are livestreaming these journeys on Douyin (TikTok in China) and Little Red Book, and fueling the trend to continue.

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang

Which areas in China are drawing the most people looking for an outdoor escape?

The one that’s always trending is Tibet. It has this magical draw that ignites people’s imagination of a spiritual pristine place. There’s this sense that if I get there I’m higher physically in altitude, and spiritually in looking down on my normal self, that all Chinese  – old, young, men, women – are drawn to.

The lakes, the prayer flags, the monasteries, the open landscape, all are so alluring that anyone who can get their hands on a bicycle or a backpack, looks to this as the ultimate pilgrimage. They start in Yunnan or Sichuan and make their way up into Tibet.

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang
Mei Zhang hiking with Paul Salopek on a Yunnan section of the Out of Eden Walk

There’s a place in Ningxia near the Yellow River, The River Collection, that has glamping sites. In Gansu, there’s Norden Camp. In Yunnan, there are also a few popping up in various places. These are capturing people’s imagination and many are willing to pay several hundred dollars a night just to be there, but both the users and the providers are still trying to figure out what the key selling points are. For example, are people paying for access to nature, a photo opportunity or luxury service? Right now, these elements vary dramatically between places.

A lot of people are using these as a proxy to see how they feel about nature and camping, and also for the social media aspect, which is probably the main draw. I’m all for these efforts. Whatever it takes to get a boot off and a toe in the water – go for it!

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang
Mei Zhang hiking with Paul Salopek on a Yunnan section of the Out of Eden Walk

Do you foresee this draw to the outdoors continuing when international travel becomes a possibility again? If so, what types of destinations and experiences will Chinese travelers be seeking?

I think that appreciation for nature and its beauty is a one-way street. If you’ve tasted the joy of watching a sunset from your tent, or the beat of the waves as you float on your kayak in the ocean, it’s really impossible to go back to the crowds of the tourist sites.

Once China’s borders open up again, places that have big, open landscapes will have lots of Chinese travelers. Think Africa, Australia, New Zealand; the national parks in America and Canada. These places have always drawn Chinese travelers, but I think they will be more popular than ever now.

The Great Outdoors: China’s Latest Travel Trend - Photo Courtesy of Mei Zhang
Mei Zhang hiking with Paul Salopek on a Yunnan section of the Out of Eden Walk