The year 2017 started for China with the first ever nationwide red level fog alarm. On January 4th, the country disappeared under a thick blanket of fog with visibility reduced to below 50 meters (164 feet), grounding air transport and rendering travel by car almost impossible. Red and orange smog alarms were raised in cities from Harbin to Guangzhou and from Chengdu to Hangzhou, halting half of all private transport and forcing many polluting factories and construction sites to shut down in an attempt to reduce levels of air pollution many times above the maximum permitted by the World Health Organization. This alert comes after a week of severe smog in mid-December, which triggered the first red smog alert of the winter and similarly halted operations across many cities in Northern China.
Chinese search engines have noted record numbers of related searches, such as “where to go,” “wash the lungs” and “forests,’’ with China’s largest online travel site Ctrip even releasing a “haze travel list” and a “haze travel” report.
The report shows that haze-avoidance tourism has become a winter tourism “must” in recent years. Based on booking statistics, the company reckons that December 2016 saw more than 150,000 Chinese travel abroad specifically to escape air pollution, proving that the search for fresh air has become a major push factor in China’s outbound tourism.
According to the EPI Environmental Performance Index, published each year by Yale University, the ten countries with the best air quality are Seychelles, Trinidad and Tobago, Maldives, Iceland, Australia, Guyana, New Zealand, Cuba, Mauritius and Belize. The ten “hottest” fresh air destinations for Chinese travelers are, according to Ctrip, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, the Maldives, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. Five of them are also on the EPI Top 10 list. In Japan the visitors target specifically the clean air of small villages and the Northern and Southern islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Okinawa. Australia and New Zealand are especially attractive because they provide an antipodean summer destination, while Canada is offering large, clean national parks.
According to Ctrip, there is a clear correlation between the level of pollution and the urge to escape. Beijing and Tianjin are the big cities hit hardest by the air pollution, but Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chongqing, Xi’an, Wuhan and Jinan are also making the Top 10 of the “haze evading” cities. The northeastern cities of Changchun, and Shenyang, as well as Shijiazhuang, Lanzhou and Jining do not follow far behind.
Relatively new to this “dirty” market segment are the cities in the provinces near the Yangzi River Delta, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, where increased pollution levels also make the inhabitants of Hangzhou and Nanjing start dreaming about blue skies.
This winter, bookings for trips to Scandinavia to see the auroral displays of Northern Lights have drastically risen by up to 400%. Similarly, even with a hefty price tag, visits to Antarctica are becoming increasing popular for Chinese travelers looking for the “world’s last pure land”.
Less affluent Chinese travelers who wish to escape China are choosing destinations such as Jeju (South Korea), Phuket (Thailand), Bali (Indonesia), Boracay (Philippines), Sabah (Malaysia), Samui (Thailand), if they don’t choose to stay in China’s own subtropical island of Hainan.
Many travelers, the data of Ctrip show, select their pollution-free destination first according to air quality and climate, and secondly according to the distance from home in terms of kilometers or in terms of comfortable air connections. Package tours have accordingly been changing their names and are now offered as “air clean oxygen lung wash” trip or “direct connection warm winter without haze.”