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Amid the Pandemic, Road Trips Have Exploded in Popularity in China

Unpredictable lockdowns and a desire for more flexible and unique trips have fueled Chinese youth’s desire to hit the highway for a picture-perfect road trip

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2 months ago 2 mins read

In the leadup to China’s week-long National Day holiday, running from October 1-7, many people were gearing up to leave city life for a few days of presumably much-needed R&R.


However, following recent Covid-19-induced lockdowns in popular tourist destinations like the tropical island of Hainan and the Tibetan city of Lhasa, more travelers have opted out of air and rail travel to rely on a freer — and more trendy — way of moving around China: road trips.


According to a report released by popular Chinese travel booking site Tuniu, 43% of the people traveling during this year’s National Day holiday have decided to forgo planes and trains and hit the open road.


And while road trips are not entirely new in China, their popularity has unquestionably skyrocketed during the pandemic.


According to Chinese online travel agency Trip.com Group, one of the world’s biggest booking platforms, car rentals in China have seen a 152% uptick in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic figures. Most of this growth is due to holidays as opposed to business trips.


The rising trend of road trips is fueled by social media-savvy and adventurous Chinese youths, with the post-’80s and ’90s crowd accounting for over two-thirds of car rentals on the platform. Aside from beautiful glamping pics, road trips allow for a degree of freedom that’s unimaginable when relying on other forms of transportation — especially during the pandemic.


road trip china

Road trip pics posted on Xiaohongshu


Yaoyao (30), a public sector employee from Tongliao, Inner Mongolia, makes time for at least one long road trip (over 1,800 miles) and a few shorter gateways (around 310 miles) each year.


“I used to travel by public transportation, but I realized many places are simply not accessible,” she tells RADII. “I also found out that the most beautiful sceneries are often the ones you find along the way, not the designated sites meant to attract many tourists.”


Like many road trip aficionados in China, Yaoyao relies on online communities to find travel companions. On the Chinese social networking platform Douban, a group named ‘We love road trips’ has more than 22,000 active members who post their rough itinerary, hoping that others will join them and share the costs of a car rental, as well as the back pain caused by sitting long hours behind the steering wheel.


road trips china

Glamorous road trip photo shoots posted on Xiaohongshu


“Before setting off, one should prepare personal items and vehicle equipment, but it’s also important to download offline maps for those areas with poor signals,” Yaoyao says.


And for inexperienced travelers, a quick search on the Instagram-like platform Xiaohongshu will not only reveal plenty of tutorials on what to pack but also on how to take Vogue-worthy road trip pictures.


In fact, the popularity of road trips in China is amplified by their ‘Instagrammable’ nature. On the image-based platform, a road-trip-related hashtag has been viewed over 160 million times, while in late September, a Weibo hashtag asking, ‘Where do you plan to drive for the National Day holiday?’ (#十一计划去哪儿自驾#) amassed more than 91 million views.


Simon Son, the CEO of Car Rental Business at Trip.com Group, told RADII that the boom in road trips also fueled the popularity of destinations that were once niche, such as provinces situated in the less-developed western region of China.


“The overall demand for summer travel in places like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Gansu has grown very rapidly,” says Son, adding that such diversification has been possible thanks to the rapid development of highways in the country.


road trips china

A road trip through western Sichuan province. Image courtesy of Deng Kaibo


However, the booming interest in road trips also raises some environmental concerns. In August, local authorities had to close the spectacular ‘Edge of Earth’ cliffs in southwestern Sichuan province permanently due to the large number of private cars damaging the cliffs’ grasslands.


The silver lining, according to Son, is that travelers who rent cars are increasingly opting for alternative fuel vehicles like EVs, which are extremely popular in China.


Ultimately, behind the country’s rising attraction to self-driven vacations lies a broader phenomenon: Chinese youth are “returning to nature,” with outdoor sports and activities such as skateboarding, ultimate frisbee, and glamping booming in popularity over the past two years.


All images via Xiaohongshu

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