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Zibo retains its unique flavor among tourists

China Daily|Updated: April 11, 2024

Famed city of BBQ trying to go beyond culinary delights to attract more visitors in long run

As the aroma from grilled lamb skewers amid sizzling charcoal fires fills the air, the local people of Zibo and tourists alike are indulging in the culinary delights of the city's bustling barbecue scene.

With small grills fired up and tables running full, the barbecue fever remains ablaze even in spring, turning the city in Shandong province once again into a hot spot for gastronomic delights.

This has also concurrently spurred growth in tourism, injecting fresh impetus into the economic development of the industrial city.

The popularity index of Zibo surged 137 percent year-on-year during this year's Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, making it a magnet for tourists, latest data from online travel agency LY.com showed.

The boom continued to April. According to Meituan, an online booking services provider, during the Tomb Sweeping Day holiday that ended Saturday, the volume of cultural and tourism orders in Zibo increased by over 130 percent compared to the previous year. Apart from local users, there was also an influx of visitors from Beijing, Tianjin, Shijiazhuang, and other places. LY data showed that during the holiday, hotel bookings in Zibo increased by 58 percent compared to the previous year, while the volume of scenic spot tickets booked increased by over eight times.

"Our restaurant was full almost every night during Lunar New Year's Eve to around Feb 17 and the Tomb Sweeping Day holiday, averaging about a hundred tables per night. Demand exceeded supply; often, the meat was sold out by around 8 pm, and we couldn't take any more customers," said Liu Fang, who handles the cash register at Xuewei Barbecue.

"We've considered increasing the supply of meat, but due to the challenge of finding reliable workers for skewering and grilling, we were concerned it might impact the quality of our food and service, affecting our reputation."

Xuewei is not the only barbecue outlet that has experienced this surge in customers.

Zhang Xueyan, owner of Zibo Big Chimney Grilled Fish & Barbecue, said several customers at her store during the Spring Festival were visitors from other cities. "Some came to visit relatives, some for tourism, and others specifically for barbecue. We were hitting around 30,000 yuan ($4,147) in daily revenue."

Zhang said that, at a preholiday 3.5-hour livestreaming session on short-video platform Douyin, she sold vouchers for in-house dining totaling 135,499 yuan, with nearly 10,000 people tuning in to the livestream.

"Many businesses, including mine, are expanding into online and takeaway services, searching for new growth points," she said.

"Even after Spring Festival, the number of daily diners has exceeded our expectations. The turnover rate has reached about two-thirds of the average during Spring Festival. The barbecue fever has picked up as the weather turns warm and more people enjoy outdoor activities," she added.

Surge in tourists

In March last year, driven by the allure of barbecue skewers wrapped with small pancakes — a traditional way of consuming barbecue in Zibo — tourists from all over the country flocked to the city. Soon, reports of how travelers stuck in Zibo amid COVID-19 restrictions had been accommodated nicely by the local government and businesses added to its appeal.

With a sudden surge in visitor numbers in less than a month, the industrial city, which was facing challenges in transforming itself, successfully seized the opportunity through the concerted efforts of locals, businesses, and the government, garnering widespread acclaim.

Data released by Tujia, an online accommodation services booking platform, revealed that during last year's May Day holiday, the number of homestay bookings in Shandong tripled compared to the same period in 2019, with bookings increasing 12-fold in Zibo.

For the first time in Tujia's record, Shandong led the nation in homestay bookings during the May Day holiday. On Meituan, accommodation bookings for Zibo surged by 800 percent compared to 2019, ranking first in Shandong.

Zhang Yaojun, a professor at the School of Applied Economics at Renmin University of China, said that Zibo barbecue became hot not only because of its taste, but also because of the positive image of Zibo's businesses and local citizens, as their warm hospitality amid COVID-19 — a phenomenon that went viral on the internet — attracted tourists from across the country, leading to a rapid rise in visitor traffic to Zibo.

The urban services stemming from joint efforts of the Zibo municipal government and its citizens also added to the city's appeal, Zhang said.

For example, the city increased free parking lots and Zibo citizens spontaneously formed volunteer teams to provide services for out-of-town visitors. These efforts enabled Zibo to better cope with the sudden tourist numbers.

Zhang said online promotion has also been a catalyst for the boom. Aside from traditional methods such as television and advertising, many local businesses used various new media platforms and social media influencers for real-time interaction.

However, the fervor for barbecue in Zibo cooled in the latter half of the year, characterized by a decline in the number of new barbecue restaurants. The city saw 69 out of the 839 newly established enterprises in Zibo winding up by November last year, said a report by media Yicai.

"Zibo's barbecue, from its peak popularity midyear to a decline months later and a recent rebound, reveals the instability of relying on a single internet-fueled trend to stimulate the local economy. The city needs to go beyond excessive reliance on short-term trends like barbecue," said Hong Yong, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation's e-commerce research institute.

"It should deeply explore and combine Zibo's rich historical and cultural heritage resources to create unique cultural tourism products. The government should also implement corresponding policies, supporting the barbecue and related industries through measures like tax incentives and entrepreneurship support."

"Regulating market order is also essential for the healthy development of the industry. Ongoing improvements in infrastructure, enhanced transportation convenience, and improved quality of accommodation and dining services will also help maintain Zibo's appeal and visitor willingness to spend," he said.

Zibo is actively seeking ways to convert the current visitor traffic into a long-term development stimulus and promote the growth of other industries. By exploring its cultural heritage and investing in tourism, Zibo is injecting fresh vitality into its economic landscape.

The district of Linzi in Zibo served as the ancient capital of the Qi state during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

The district boasts numerous historical sites such as the Chariot and Horse Museum. Local authorities and businesses are intensifying efforts to develop a range of products and services related to Qi culture to enrich the tourist experience.

Additionally, popular destinations like Zhoucun Ancient Commercial Street in Zibo's Zhoucun district and the Zibo Ceramic and Glass Museum are also hot spots for sightseeing.

"Many barbecue restaurant owners in our courtyard hope that Zibo's cultural and tourism will gain traction. We feel that many visitors, after trying Zibo's barbecue, might not return to the city solely for the barbecue again. However, if the city offers other attractions, such as historical sites, it can transform the short-term influx into long-term visits," said Zhang of Zibo Big Chimney Grilled Fish & Barbecue.


Zhang Xueyan, owner of Zibo Big Chimney Grilled Fish & Barbecue, serves dishes at her restaurant in Zibo, Shandong province, in February. WANG JING/CHINA DAILY

Customers enjoy barbecue skewers at a diner in Zibo in February. WANG JING/CHINA DAILY

A technician inspects equipment at an intelligent robot manufacturer in Zibo in July. WANG JING/CHINA DAILY

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