2023 Zibo barbecue: Millions bring sudden Fame to the Industrial Chinese City
Zibo, a seemingly unremarkable industrial city in eastern China, has unexpectedly become a magnet for tourists. The city’s native, Mr. Zhang, was taken aback by the overwhelming influx of visitors when he returned home for his wedding. It was a stark contrast to the usual calm atmosphere of the city. “I couldn’t guarantee high-speed train tickets, hotel room bookings, or even find a place for a barbecue meal,” Mr. Zhang expressed to the BBC.
Since China lifted its Covid restrictions in January, Zibo has been in the spotlight of social media frenzy. Influencers and the chance to unwind after enduring strict lockdowns have enticed millions of domestic travelers to this previously obscure destination in Shandong province. The main attraction? Affordable barbecue, with skewers priced as low as 2 yuan ($0.30) each.
Videos shared online showcase the vibrant atmosphere in Zibo as crowds indulge in food and drink. On the Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu, one user described an open-air karaoke session where people enthusiastically enjoyed their meals, sang, and danced around their dining tables, illuminated by waving light sticks.
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Barbecue holds a special place in Chinese cuisine, especially in the northern and western regions, involving marinated meat and vegetable skewers grilled over charcoal. In Zibo, locals have a particular fondness for rolling the grilled skewers in thin pancakes with scallions.
Online influencers have dubbed Zibo as China’s outdoor barbecue capital, with over 1,270 barbecue joints in the city, according to the president of Zibo’s Barbecue Association. Since early March, Zibo barbecue has trended on Chinese social media platforms like Xiaohongshu and Weibo.
The surge in popularity has transformed Zibo’s landscape. In March, the city’s population more than doubled. On April 29, Zibo Railway Station recorded an all-time high of 87,000 train trips, according to Chinese news website Caixin. During the Golden Week holiday in early May, Zibo boasted one of the nation’s highest hotel room occupancy rates.
Local authorities swiftly capitalized on the sudden tourism influx, creating a barbecue zone that accommodates 10,000 people and features live band performances. Volunteers, including kindergarten children, were dispatched to the railway station to offer advice and recommendations to tourists. Museums extended their opening hours, and designated buses and trains were arranged to transport visitors to the most popular barbecue spots. The government even issued warnings of potential punishments for hotels engaging in excessive price hikes.
The efforts to accommodate tourists have proven successful. A university student praised the delicious and unique barbecue methods, attributing the surge in tourism to the government’s swift reaction and the city’s down-to-earth and tourist-friendly atmosphere. Affordability has also played a role, as students who engage in cost-effective “special forces travel” find Zibo an appealing destination for short, budget-friendly trips.
Social media influencers have also contributed to Zibo’s newfound popularity. When tagged by his followers, food vlogger SpecialWulala, with over 15 million followers on Douyin (China’s version of TikTok), traveled to Zibo in March. A month later, a popular influencer known for exposing dishonest restaurants visited Zibo and found no foul play among the stalls.
However, not everyone in the city has been able to cope with the overwhelming number of tourists. A widely shared video on Weibo depicted a restaurant owner bowing down repeatedly and apologizing to a customer who couldn’t be served due to full capacity. The demands on restaurant staff have been intense, with employees sleeping only four hours a day to meet customer demand.
Recognizing the strain on the city, Zibo’s Culture and Tourism Bureau published a letter advising people to avoid visiting during the May Day holiday. The
letter expressed concern about the uncontrollable popularity of Zibo’s barbecue scene, acknowledging the inconvenience and trouble it has caused. They emphasized that accommodating the recent surge of tourists has pushed the city’s limits.
Mr. Zhang, too, believes that sustaining such a high volume of tourists is challenging, especially considering that barbecue is primarily a summer event. With a population of less than five million, hosting a net inflow of 200,000 people becomes increasingly difficult in the long run.
Nevertheless, the majority of locals remain content with the influx of visitors, willingly stepping aside from popular spots to make room for outsiders. Mr. Zhang shared that his fellow citizens take pride in their hometown’s newfound nationwide fame.
Zibo’s transformation from a sleepy industrial city to a bustling tourist destination serves as a testament to the power of social media, influencers, and affordable culinary experiences. While the challenges of managing the sudden influx of tourists are apparent, it is a remarkable example of how a hidden gem can capture the attention of the masses and bring newfound recognition to a place previously overlooked.