Campers in Jinhua, Zhejiang
BUSINESS

Was China’s Love for Camping Just a Pandemic-Fueled Fad?

With Covid-19 restrictions lifted, campsites struggle to adapt to fierce competition and increased choice for travel-deprived tourists

When Xiaohongshu user ”Dabing“ set up his campsite in Fujian province in 2021, he was probably hoping to ride the wave of a booming trend for camping that was sweeping across China. Instead, two years later his venture had gone bankrupt. “Don’t start a camping business!“ he implored his followers via a post on the social media platform on April 6.

In his post, Dabing described a scenario many campsite owners are familiar with in 2023: rising costs, increased competition from hotels and other campsites, a struggle to attract customers during bouts of bad weather, and even facing the risk of being shut down by authorities for using local land without permission.

Dabing’s account suggests China’s camping boom of the last three years may be coming to an end. According to Qichacha, an online business database, more than 6,000 camping-related companies have gone bankrupt in 2023 so far. The media has reported on a “wave of campsite bankruptcy,“ while the hashtag “Why doesn’t anyone like camping anymore?“ has garnered over 3.8 million views on Weibo since April. Camping soared during the pandemic, but now many businesses are suffering, or having to adapt.

Camping popularity has been on a steady increase in China since around 2010 but became a craze among travel-starved urbanites in 2020 when pandemic restrictions stopped many Chinese from traveling abroad and even made domestic travel a hassle, particularly across city or provincial borders. Many flocked to the outskirts of their cities—Beijing’s Mentougou district, or Dongping and Sheshan national forest parks in Shanghai, for example—where they could enjoy the sensation of traveling, embrace nature, and take photos in beautiful scenery, without having to cross borders.

In November 2022, a new plan for the development of China’s outdoor sports industry released by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism and seven other government departments reported that over 400 million people participated in outdoor sports, including camping, in 2021. According to Tianyancha, a business data query and investigation platform, over 56,000 new camping-related businesses emerged in 2021 and 2022.

But since late 2022, China’s pandemic restrictions have loosened. With no more barriers to travel or enforced quarantine for arrivals from abroad, people are free to holiday where they wish again—many have turned away from tents.

“The camping industry is indeed declining this year. We see lots of news of campsites going bankrupt online, but these are only the ones we hear about, there are more we don’t see, smaller ones that are now closed,“ the manager of a campsite in Chengdu, Sichuan province, told Cover News in April this year. The manager also claimed that 90 percent of Chengdu’s campsites were losing money. “I only know one that is profitable, and the rest are gone before they get a chance to make money,“ they said.

Campers at ”Sky City” in Haikou enjoying the outdoors, China’s camping craze

Campers at Sky City in Haikou, Hainan province (VCG)

Miye Camp, a mobile app providing information about campsites for consumers, halted operations in March 2023, less than two years after it was launched. The platform listed over 3,000 campsites and had 600,000 users before it shut down. The company said it closed because it failed to attract investment.

On Xiaohongshu and other social media platforms, the phrase “once I can travel, I never want to camp again“ has become a popular catchphrase for people who post about their nightmare camping experiences. Many posts complained of noisy camping neighbors in crowded sites, high prices, and false advertising.

Zhou Dabin, a 33-year-old owner of two campsites in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, argues that during the pandemic, entrepreneurs flooded into the camping business hoping to make a quick buck, sometimes building campsites on illegal land, over-charging for poor service and facilities, and not investing sustainably. “Many people just found some barren land, talked to local farmers or village leaders to get permission, and started doing business,” Zhou tells TWOC. “Get a piece of land, two tents, and call it a campsite. It’s ridiculous!“

But Zhou has managed to stay afloat. He adapted his campsites to offer more activities and include facilities for frisbee, rugby, open-air movies, board games, and karaoke. This has not come cheap at around 2 million yuan, but Zhou claims it has helped attract customers for events such as corporate team building: “Our sites are fully booked for the next two weeks.” This has more than made up for campers who may have tried camping for the first time at his site during the pandemic but since moved on to different travel and entertainment. “Our monthly revenue has risen sharply, almost three times higher than last year,” Zhou says.

There are also still many keen campers around. Wang Shaishai, an editor of a newspaper in Qingdao, Shandong province, who agreed to be interviewed by TWOC under a pseudonym, began camping in 2021 and now goes three or four times a month. “I was born in Tianjin, and there the only place for me to meet with friends, date, or do parent-kid activities is the shopping mall,” she says. “Once I discovered camping, I fell in love with it. I enjoy camping by the sea with my husband and my puppy.” Wang has spent 10,000 yuan on camping gear so far, and has no plans to halt her new hobby.

Campers relaxing and enjoying the outdoors

Campers at Zhou Dabin‘s campsites (Zhou Dabin)

Likewise, Liu Xiaoyu, a 24-year-old postgraduate student at the University of International Business and Economics, Beijing, still prefers camping in the areas around Beijing to traveling further afield: “Travelling takes up at least three days and makes me exhausted. Instead of joining the huge crowds [at tourist sites], I prefer going camping with my friends,” Liu says.

Despite the exodus of some businesses and customers, China’s camping industry still has room to grow. Urbanites have only recently become familiar with camping, and as the middle classes continue to seek escape from crowded urban areas full of high-rise buildings and with few open public spaces for recreation, pitching a tent in nature remains attractive. As incomes grow, consumers also have more money to spend on leisure activities.

According to a report by Jinlu Consulting, a tourism industry research company, the growth rate of China’s camping industry is likely to slow, but the domestic camping market will still rise in value to 178.14 billion yuan by the end of 2023, up from 55 billion yuan in 2020.

The government has also backed the camping industry to continue growing. The Outdoor Sports Industry Development Plan 2022 – 2025, released last year, announced measures to support the development of the camping industry, including encouraging the establishment of campsites in the suburbs, in parks, and in the countryside. The measures also encouraged local governments to introduce policies that ensure campsites can have access to running water, electricity, and gas.

Zhou argues some of the recent campsite bankruptcies are good for the long-term health of the industry. “This wave of closures is not because there are fewer consumers or the industry is dying, it’s because entrepreneurs blindly following the camping trend couldn’t attract and retain their clients,” he says. “It’s no wonder that they all went out of business at the beginning of 2023, when the camping industry had to compete with other recreation like traveling and indoor activities.”

The days of camping mania in China may be over, but Zhou remains optimistic about future business. Recently he has begun holding themed events and parties at his campsite, in the hope attendees will become regular customers after getting a taste of the venue. “Instead of waiting for customers to contact me, I run these events and then ask clients to come camp on the site again,” he says. It might take more than that to keep them coming back, now that traveling abroad is possible again.

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author Chen Jiahe (陈佳贺)

Chen Jiahe is an intern at The World of Chinese. She is interested in sharing stories about Chinese society, youth culture, and history.

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