How glamping became China’s biggest travel trend

(CNN) – “Every grassy area is covered with tents on the weekends,” says 26-year-old glamping enthusiast Yoga Song.

Glamping, a mixture of the words “glamor” and “camping”, is the latest travel craze among young Chinese.

Over the past year, Song says she has taken more than 10 glamping trips in China, both to rural areas and suburbs.

She embarked on her first glamping trip in April 2021, en route to Zhongwei, a city known as “Eastern Morocco”.

Located in the mostly deserted Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of northern China, Zhongwei is home to the Yellow River, parts of the Great Wall of China, deserts, wetlands and ancient villages.

By the time she left, the city was already littered with boutique hotels and inns. But Song chose to try something else: a tent.

When Song arrived, she said there were five tents just 10 meters away from the rushing Yellow River, overlooking the Gobi Desert – the world’s sixth largest – on the other side.

But it did not go smoothly. The weather was very windy in Zhongwei, sending sand and gravel flying. As a result, all tourist sites were closed.

“That night, the people who run the glamping place called us out to look at the stars,” she recalls. “When I got out of the tent, all the clouds that covered the sky finally spread. The sky was huge, filled with starlight – all the stars I can ever imagine, and the silence was perfect.”

With hustle and bustle in city life again, travelers are exposed to an authentic, modern northwest China. Song says that glamping here, surrounded by farms and pastures, gives travelers a chance to sow, harvest and taste locally grown dates and grapes. Goats, yaks and sheep come to the tents from time to time.

This popular glamping resort is located on top of Hangzhou Yongan Mountains.

This popular glamping resort is located on top of Hangzhou Yongan Mountains.

Xu Yu / Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

Comfort over nature

In the world’s most populous country, time in nature can mean intense mountain hikes and desert hikes or light picnics on the lawn of a park and relaxing rides to the outskirts of a city.

But while young urban people want fresh air and nature, many are reluctant to give up creature comfort such as soft mattresses.

Xiaohongshu, the country’s premier lifestyle website, is a big hidden hand that drives holiday fashion while elegant camping-inspired posts flow into mobile feeds.

For many young Chinese, glamping is just the right activity for them daka lists – a buzzword that describes internet users as “clocking in” on Instagrammable sites.

Thousands of detailed lists of glamping items, easy-to-prepare recipes and recommendations for glamping destinations across the country dominate the Chinese Internet.

Song remembers seeing a Marshall speaker and large, handmade rugs inside her tent in Zhongwei.

Natural Camp, the site’s operator, proudly announces its official Xiaohongshu (a Chinese social media site): “We have a good selection of outdoor brands, both domestic and international.”

These include mattresses from King Koil – just like the ones found in five-star hotel rooms – and outdoor furniture from the exclusive Nordic brand Tentipi.

A one-night stay costs around 1,000 yuan ($ 148) for each person, Song says.

The trend is not just happening in mainland China.

Wade Cheung, marketing manager at Saiyuen, a glamping and adventure park on an island in Hong Kong, has also seen bookings “increase significantly” over the past two years, with more than 10% of visitors returning after their first stay.

“The protracted pandemic has inspired Hong Kong people to explore the wonderful home-grown experiences of the city,” says Cheung.

The area, on the island of Cheung Chau, offers various accommodation options, from tipi to Mongolian grass, but the most exclusive is Sunset Vista, a 300 square meter dome tent set on its own 2000 square meter space with private grassland.

The dome can accommodate a total of four people, and includes a private shower room and toilet, barbecue oven, hammock and more,

With a bay window overlooking the ocean and a page ideal for star gazing, Sunset Vista has become a hit among Hong Kong bloggers and influencers.

A night in the tent costs around $ 3500 HKD ($ 446) to $ 4800 HKD ($ 611), on a par with a night in a luxury hotel on Hong Kong Island.

Guests who prioritize comfort over nature have dominated the glamping space these days.

Cheung says the type of visitors they receive has evolved since the start of the pandemic. Before, visitors loved camping, hiking and nature, and would be impressed with the air conditioning in the tents. Now guests consider AC a must.

– If, for example, there is a frog sitting in front of the tent, the previous visitors will probably squat down and take a picture with it, but for visitors today it may be something they have to adapt to, he adds.

View from inside the Saiyu's dome tent.

View from inside the Saiyu’s dome tent.

Saiyuen

A covid-powered fad

Glamping has gained momentum since Covid-19 first hit. A report published by the Chinese travel operator CTrip shows searches for camping activities eightfold in 2021.

During the Labor Day holiday in May 2022, figures from another platform, Qunar, reveal that ticket sales to parks that allow camping in China rose over 50% compared to the same period last year.

Bookings for home stays that offer camping-related services such as motorhomes and tents also quadrupled in the country during the holidays compared to the same period last year, according to the holiday rental website Tujia.

An adventure hike at Saiyuen Glamping Resort in Hong Kong.

An adventure hike at Saiyuen Glamping Resort in Hong Kong.

Saiyuen

Covid-19 has certainly played a role in this newfound enthusiasm for outdoor luxury experiences.

The first eruption in 2020 sealed China’s borders, keeping Chinese tourists at home. Recent Covid-19 outbreaks are estimated to have cut domestic travel by more than half, and people are spending holidays even closer to home, as the potential consequences of travel have evolved from being shut out of China to being banned from their hometown.

By doubling down on its controversial “zero-covid” policy, China has taken tough action, including shutdowns and repeated rounds of mass tests to eradicate the latest clusters.

The megacity of Shanghai has just come out of a nine-week hard city-wide blockade that prevented all residents from leaving their apartments. In the capital Beijing, a three-week “soft lockdown” has forced millions of residents to work from home.

And there is an echo of past epidemics in Hong Kong.

It was almost two decades ago, when the SARS outbreak hit the city, that Cheung went on his first local hikes and camping trips. That’s when he discovered “Hong Kong is such a fun place to explore.”

The cold of nature

While Song agrees that the increase in glamping can be attributed to Covid-19 restrictions, which led to people appreciating opportunities to get in touch with nature, she thinks there is something more to it. Namely the concept «to live wild».

“Many lifestyles that we see on social media are too glamorous. The coffee culture in Shanghai, for example, is a bit glamorous. They set a precedent for how we should idealistically look, talk and live.”

But people realize that these lifestyles lack something, Song notes. Picnics, which were popular before glamping became the new craze, can no longer satisfy the urge to connect with nature.

Nevertheless, she carefully draws a line between “living wild” and “living in the wilderness”.

“Some of my friends can just go camping on any mountain with just a backpack. It’s too hard for me to handle. At least basic sanitary standards and living conditions should not be sacrificed,” she says.

The constant appeal of spending time in the wilderness means that glamping maturity is likely to stay, but is expected to fall “to a stable level” after travel restrictions are lifted, Cheung notes.

Among those who visit Saiyuen, around 60% of them are families, who “will still love to take their children to a little adventure island locally” on the weekends, he adds.

Top image: Hong Kong’s glam resort Saiyuen is located on Cheung Chau Island. Credit: Saiyuen