The “special forces” travel fad among young people in China could be bad news for Beijing

The “special forces” travel fad among young people in China could be bad news for Beijing
Chinese tourists take their photo with the Forbidden City in the background from Jingshan Park during a sandstorm on March 28, 2021 in Beijing, China.  China's capital and the northern part of the country was hit with a sandstorm Sunday, sending air quality indexes of PM 2.5 and PM 10 ratings into the thousands for the second time in as many weeks.

Chinese tourists take their photo with the Forbidden City in the background from Jingshan Park during a sandstorm on March 28, 2021 in Beijing, China. China’s capital and the northern part of the country was hit with a sandstorm Sunday, sending air quality indexes of PM 2.5 and PM 10 ratings into the thousands for the second time in as many weeks.

Young Chinese travelers are hitting the road after three years of covid restrictions, and their approach is all about speed, thrift, and fun.

The new fad, called “special force-style travel” (特种兵式旅游), has gone viral in China over the past couple months. The idea is simple: travel to as many touristic sites in as little time as possible, all while spending the least amount of money. The grueling itineraries that result from the philosophy have earned it the military comparison.

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“Special forces” tourism began trending during China’s Qingming Festival holiday (April 4 to 5) and Labor Day holiday (April 29 to May 3). During that time, frenetic videos of “special forces” travel started popping up on social media feeds, depicting young people jam-packing their schedules on a shoe-string budget while traveling (and eating) their way through cities across China.

Shanghai-based digital news outlet The Paper (澎湃新闻) interviewed (link in Chinese) a tourism manager who attributed the fad’s emergence to the release of pent-up demand following covid, the warming weather and the start of travel season, influence from the media, and desire to jump on the trend.

The fact that a record of one in five young people in China are unemployed might also be a contributing factor.

Sleeping anywhere, traveling everywhere

University students following the “special forces” tourism trend have been getting their shut eye in internet cafes and even sleeper trains in order to travel cheaply, as CGTN reports. In some cases, university students have even opted to sleep at 24-hour locations of a Chinese hot pot chain, Haidilao, in order to save on costs (link in Chinese).

A major part of the trend has been documenting one’s hyper-efficient “special forces” itinerary. In one video (link in Chinese), a university student boasts of traveling “everywhere” in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, visiting 10 different sites in just 24 hours (and a little over 40,000 steps).

Other itineraries show off extremely low travel costs, sometimes totaling as little as 150 yuan ($21) to 300 yuan ($43) for a two-day trip.

Cheap travel tips.

Cheap travel tips.

“Special forces” travel are not likely to help China’s economic recovery

The anti-spending sentiment could be bad news for Beijing as its economy struggles to recover from its near standstill during covid lockdowns. So far, some economic recovery has been driven by a rise in consumption, but it seems the appetite for spending on travel is still depressed.

During the Labor Day holiday, Chinese travelers made 274 million trips, representing a 19% uptick from 2019, as Reuters reports. But spending didn’t appear to keep up, with an average of 540 yuan ($77) spent on travel over the May holiday in 2023, down from 603 yuan ($86) in 2019.

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