Secrets behind Zibo's explosion in popularity as seen by a local resident
A new engine
Published: May 04, 2023 11:29 PM
Visitors flock to a barbecue stall in Zibo, Shandong Province on April 29, 2023. Photo: VCG

Visitors flock to a barbecue stall in Zibo, Shandong Province on April 29, 2023. Photo: VCG

My hometown Zibo, a once glorious and later faded industrial city in East China's Shandong Province, went viral online in late March. But it was not until I went back home and saw visitors flock to open-air barbecue stalls and tourist attractions which I never considered special in the past, that I realized Zibo had truly turned into a trendy tourist destination.

I was lucky to have snapped up a train ticket from Beijing to Zibo on April 27, two days before China's five-day May Day holidays, as the tickets for the Beijing-Zibo route sold out within a minute after the train tickets for the holiday period went available on April 15.

When the train arrived at Zibo station, which was not the final destination of the train, I was surprised to see over 20 passengers in my carriage get off. That number was three times more than the passengers from my previous journeys home in the past three years.

To avoid the peak-hour crowd, I went to the popular Badaju wet market and the newly built Haiyue Longgong barbecue market on April 28, a day ahead of the May Day holidays, finding in shock that they were jam-packed with people.

Badaju is a popular local market consisting of a main street heading from north to south with two east-west lanes crossing it, where you can buy fresh food, clothes and almost all life necessities at a fair price. 

Statistics from Baidu Map showed on April 30 it ranked as the top popular tourist attraction across China.

Different plates

As I passed through the vehicles parked around the Badaju area, I noticed that the license plates were not only from other cities in Shandong but ranged from North China's Hebei to Southwest China's Sichuan. Upon entering the market through one of its secondary lanes, I found myself squashed in like a sardine once I reached the main street.

Visitors there lined up in front of stalls selling fried pork belly, meatballs, fired wheat pancakes and black-rice pie. People were enjoying local snacks, talking and laughing with their friends. 

Others were filming the slowly moving crowd with their phones to share the popularity and their excitement on social media platforms like Douyin, Weibo and Xiaohongshu.

Later I went to Haiyue Longgong, the barbecue market that was built within 20 days before the May Day holidays. I found it was even more crowded than I had anticipated as it could accommodate nearly 10,000 people. 

In addition to dozens of selected barbecue stalls and numerous food stands selling drinks, fruits, seafood, and other special local products, the barbecue market also had two stages set up to host open-air concerts during the holiday. 

"The barbecue here is tasty and cheap. The tourist buses cover almost all the city's attractions and the local residents are very enthusiastic and friendly when asked for help," a visitor from Beijing surnamed Feng said. "The only downside is that there are too many people." 

Visitors swarm in Haiyue Longong market in Zibo, Shandong Province on April 28, 2023. Photo: Zhang Changyue/GT

Visitors swarm in Haiyue Longong market in Zibo, Shandong Province on April 28, 2023. Photo: Zhang Changyue/GT

Surge of tourists

The Zibo tourism authority said that around 120,000 people were expected to come during the five-day holiday.

Data from online food delivery platforms Meituan and Dazhong Dianping showed that travel orders in Zibo during the May Day holidays, including hotel booking and tickets, increased by more than 20 times from the same period in 2022.

"The visitors to Zibo in May were different from those of March and April, when nearly 74 percent of tourists were young people born after 1990 who mainly flocked to barbecue stalls and stayed for only one or two days," Yan Xu, deputy director of Zibo tourism authority, was quoted as saying by China Economic Weekly magazine. 

"The people who have come to Zibo in May are mainly families, which means more elders and children will be present and the locals will need to step up public service facilities." 

The influx of visitors has made the old industrial city lively again. 

Some netizens said that the local government's efforts in providing high-quality service, ensuring business owners' honesty and Zibo residents' hospitality were the key to keeping people flocking into the city.

In Badaju and Haiyue Longgong, I saw groups of volunteers, police and market administrators patrolling around the market areas, ready to help visitors look after their luggage, guide them to popular sites and respond to their complaints in case they were ripped off. 

My junior high school classmate Fu said he misses the old days when families and friends could fully enjoy the open-air barbecue without waiting to be seated, but is very excited and proud that Zibo became known to more people and wishes to do his best to show Zibo's beauty to friends all over the world.

"Not just for the mouth­watering barbecue, perhaps what makes this old factory town attractive is that all Zibo people worked together to sincerely provide the guests with the best food and scenery and to leave visitors some pleasant memories," Fu said.