For a lot of Chinese, Harbin conjures images of ice and steel, a city each cold and hard.
But this winter, the heavily industrialized city morphed right into a warmly welcoming host, drawing in a record-breaking number of tourists, mainly from China’s south.
In the course of the three-day Latest 12 months period from Dec. 30 to Jan. 1, Harbin received greater than three million tourist visits, a standard tourism measurement in China, bringing in tourism revenues of some 5.914 billion Chinese yuan ($830 million), in line with the Harbin Cultural Broadcasting and Tourism Bureau.
Harbin’s winter festivities attracted Shanghai resident Yuying Zhang to the town, she said. But ultimately, she said she was more enamored with the residents than the town’s famous ice sculptures.
The day she arrived, Zhang said, she booked a taxi via Didi, a cashless ride-hailing app in China.
“Nonetheless, after recognizing our southern accents, the driving force insisted on giving us the ride without spending a dime and even offered to transfer our a reimbursement,” Zhang said in Mandarin, as translated by CNBC. “He said he was glad to see so many southern visitors in Harbin.”
Southerners arrive decked out in winter gear to go to Harbin.
Source: Yuying Zhang
Zhang said that though she declined the driving force’s offer, the gesture lifted her spirits and set the tone for the remaining of her trip.
In a twist on the Japanese phrase “the shopper is God,” Harbin’s governmental website states “the tourist is God,” highlighting how tourists are viewed in the town.
In a letter to residents in December, the city government asked locals to “embrace this overwhelming affection and put our guests first, treating them with the utmost respect and friendliness.”
“Whether it’s fastidiously guiding them, warmly answering their questions, offering a bowl of ginger tea, or giving them a lift on our way, we are able to do our utmost to totally showcase the authentic hospitality of Harbin’s people.”
Tourists walking down Harbin’s Central Street on Jan. 9, 2024.
Zhang Tao | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
She said residents heeded the decision. On Harbin’s Central Street, volunteers handed out warm ginger tea, while others wore signs around their necks, offering free travel advice, specifically for tourists from southern China.
Pharmacies sold single doses of medicines to travelers, and restaurants served free frozen pears to waiting patrons, cut into pieces, catering to the southern preference for smaller bites.
Restaurants served free frozen pears cut the way in which southern Chinese prefer to eat them.
Source: Yuying Zhang
The federal government even laid carpets along Central Street’s underground pedestrian passageways to guard visitors from falling. The move sparked comments on social media, with one local remarking, “My mum said she’s lived in Harbin for 60 years and has never seen this occur before.”
“It looks as if all of Harbin’s industries are pivoting towards tourism, making way for visitors at every turn,” Zhang said. “It’s like tourists listed here are akin to visiting children in another person’s home, where the host brings out one of the best snacks for them, while asking their very own children to collapse.”
Every traveler interviewed by CNBC said social media buzz about Harbin influenced their decision to go to, with many saying the nickname that northern Chinese had given them — “Southern Little Taters” — was additional motivation to travel north.
Tourists from China’s milder southern regions, who are inclined to be shorter than their northern counterparts, often bundle up in thick jackets, fur-lined hats and large scarves, giving them a potato-like appearance, say locals.
The plump, bundled-up appearance of Harbin tourists, many hailing from southern China, led to locals calling them “Little Southern Taters” — a nickname that was widely discussed on Chinese social media.
Andrea Verdelli | Bloomberg | Getty Images
“Once I initially read the term, the words seemed somewhat cold, but if you’re across the [locals] and experience their friendliness, you begin to search out the nickname ‘Little Tater’ quite cute,” said Zhang.
Tourists latest nickname for Harbin — the shorter “Rbin” — has swept across Chinese social media too, representing their newfound affection for the town.
A bigger plan to make use of social media to publicize Harbin and the larger province of Heilongjiang could also be at play.
He Jing, head of Heilongjiang Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism, told China Central Television that his department has been specializing in using social media “because the starting of 2023.”
The opening day of the Harbin Ice and Snow World, an element of the larger festival, on Dec. 18 drew greater than 40,000 visitors.
Due to the overwhelming turnout, lots of the park’s attractions required queuing for several hours. The most well-liked attraction giant slide required waiting in line for about five to 6 hours.
Some attendees at Harbin’s 2024 festivities complained about long lines.
Source: Yuetong Jiang
Several visitors expressed their dissatisfaction online, noting the discomfort of waiting in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, prompting some to demand refunds for his or her tickets.
Harbin’s government quickly apologized in a printed letter, vowing to enhance waiting times, though several travelers told CNBC that long lines are still an issue.
Yuetong Jiang said that in her mid-January visit to the Ice and Snow World park, average waiting times were two to a few hours per attraction, with the temperatures fluctuating between 4 and 24 degrees Celsius.
“You possibly can’t even take your hands out of your coat to snap a photograph or scroll through your phone due to the acute cold,” she said.
Harbin Ice and Snow World, at night.
Andrea Verdelli | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Jiang said she was concerned the waiting time might not be price it, but after her trips she said the time spent in line was justified.
“The wait for the 2 attractions felt quick on reflection, and there was a way of happiness once they ended, as if the memory of queuing had been forged aside,” she said
Zhang, nevertheless, was turned off by the long lines she saw online. So she decided to go to a unique ice festival within the nearby city of Changchun, in China’s Jilin province.
“I spent roughly 10 minutes in line for the preferred giant slide attraction and ended up happening it thrice,” said Zhang.
Following Harbin’s winter tourism explosion, other cities in China are beginning to promote their very own attractions on social media, with tourism bureau directors and celebrities appearing in online videos to draw visitors.
Wilson Zhou, analyst from Bacui Capital Management, told CNBC, “The demand for traveling among the many Chinese people stays high … [but] domestic tourism is now being chosen as a more cost effective option.”
As China’s upcoming Spring Festival draws near, the surge in travel to Northeast China shows no signs of waning.
Data from Trip.com shows a greater than tenfold year-on-year increase to cold weather destinations, with northern cities resembling Harbin, Mudanjiang, Changchun and Baishan becoming particularly popular destinations.