02 glamping china Saiyuen
CNN  — 

“Every grassland is covered with tents during weekends,” says 26-year-old glamping enthusiast Yoga Song.

Glamping, a fusion of the words “glamor” and “camping,” is the latest travel fad among young Chinese.

Over the past year, Song says she has taken more than 10 glamping trips in China, to both rural regions and city suburbs.

She embarked on her first glamping trip in April of 2021, heading for Zhongwei, a city referred to as the “eastern Morocco.”

Located in the mostly deserted Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of northern China, Zhongwei is home to the Yellow River, portions of the Great Wall, deserts, wetlands and ancient villages.

When she went, the city was already dotted with boutique hotels and homestays. But Song opted to try something different: a tent.

When Song arrived, she says there were five tents situated just 10 meters away from the roaring Yellow River, with views of the Gobi Desert – the world’s sixth-largest – on the other side.

But it didn’t go smoothly. The weather was very windy in Zhongwei, sending sand and gravel flying. As a result, all the tourist spots were closed.

“That night, people operating the glamping site called us out to look at the stars,” she recalls. “When I stepped out of the tent, all the clouds that covered the sky finally dispersed. The sky was vast, filled with starlight – all the stars I can ever imagine, and the silence was consummate.”

With the hustle and bustle of city life left behind, travelers are exposed to an authentic, contemporary northwest China. Song says glamping here, surrounded by farms and pastures, offers travelers a chance to sow, harvest and taste locally-grown dates and wine grapes. Goats, yaks and sheep come by the tents from time to time.

This popular glamping resort is  perched on top of Hangzhou's Yongan Mountain.

Comfort over nature

In the world’s most populous country, time in nature can mean intense mountain hikes and desert treks or light picnics on the grassy lawn of a park and relaxing drives to the outskirts of a city.

Yet while young urbanites crave fresh air and nature, many are unwilling to give up creature comforts like soft mattresses.

Xiaohongshu, the country’s foremost lifestyle website, is a major hidden hand driving the vacation fad as chic camping-inspired posts flood into mobile feeds.

For many young Chinese, glamping is just the right activity for their daka lists – a buzzword that describes internet users “clocking in” at Instagrammable places.

Thousands of detailed lists of glamping items, recipes for easy-to-prepare meals and recommendations for glamping destinations across the country dominate the Chinese internet.

Song recalls seeing a Marshall speaker and huge, handmade carpets inside her tent in Zhongwei.

Natural Camp, the site’s operator, proudly announces on its official Xiaohongshu (a Chinese social media site) account: “We keep a fine choice of outdoor brands, both domestic and international ones.”

These include mattresses by King Koil – just as likely to be the same ones found in five-star hotel rooms – and outdoor furnishings from the upscale Nordic brand Tentipi.

A one-night stay costs around 1,000 yuan ($148) for each person, Song says.

The trend isn’t just happening in mainland China.

Wade Cheung, marketing manager at Saiyuen, a glamping and adventure park on an island in Hong Kong, has also seen bookings “increase significantly” over the past two years, with more than 10% of visitors returning after their first stay.

“The lingering pandemic has inspired Hong Kong people to explore the fabulous home-grown experiences in the city,” says Cheung.

The site, on the island of Cheung Chau, offers various accommodation options, from tepees to Mongolian gers, but the most exclusive is the Sunset Vista, a 300-square-foot domed tent set in its own 2,000 square feet space with private grassland.

The dome can accommodate four people in total, and includes a private shower room and toilet, barbecue stove, hammock and more,

With a bay window overlooking the ocean and a site ideal for stargazing, Sunset Vista has become a hit with Hong Kong bloggers and influencers.

One night in the tent costs about $3,500 HKD ($446) to $4,800 HKD ($611), on par with a night in a luxury hotel on Hong Kong island.

Guests prioritizing comfort over nature have dominated the glamping site these days.

Cheung says the type of visitors they receive has evolved since the start of the pandemic. Before, visitors loved camping, hiking and nature, and would be impressed by the air conditioners in the tents. Now, guests consider AC a must.

“For example, if there is a frog sitting in front of the tent, the previous visitors will probably squat down and take a photo with it, but for visitors nowadays, it might become something that they need to adapt to,” he adds.

A view from inside Saiyuen's dome tent.

A Covid-fueled fad

Glamping has been picking up steam since Covid-19 first hit. A report published by Chinese travel operator CTrip shows searches for camping activities jumped eightfold in 2021.

During the Labor Day holiday in May of 2022, figures from another platform, Qunar, reveals that ticket sales of parks that allow camping in China soared over 50% compared with the same period last year.

Bookings for homestays that provide camping-related services such as RVs and tents also quadrupled in the country during the holiday over the same period last year, according to the vacation rental site Tujia.

An adventure walk at Saiyuen glamping site in Hong Kong.

Covid-19 has certainly played a role in this newfound enthusiasm for outdoor luxury experiences.

The initial outbreak in 2020 sealed China’s borders, keeping Chinese tourists at home. Recent Covid-19 outbreaks are estimated to have cut domestic travel by more than half, and people are spending holidays even closer to home, as the potential consequences of travel have evolved from getting locked out of China to getting locked out of one’s home city.

Doubling down on its controversial “zero-Covid” policy, China has been imposing harsh measures including lockdowns and repeated rounds of mass testing to stamp out the latest clusters.

The mega city Shanghai just emerged from a nine-week hard citywide lockdown which barred all residents from leaving their apartments. In the capital Beijing, a three-week-plus “soft lockdown” has left millions of residents being asked to work from home.

And there are echoes of previous epidemics in Hong Kong.

It was almost two decades ago, when the SARS outbreak struck the city, that Cheung went on his first local hiking and camping trips. It was then that he discovered “Hong Kong is such a fun place to explore.”

The call of the wild

While Song agrees that glamping’s rise can be attributed to Covid-19 restrictions, which led people to value opportunities to get in touch with nature, she thinks there is something more to it. Namely, the concept of “living wildly.”

“Many lifestyles that we see on social media are too glamorous. The coffee culture in Shanghai, for example, is a bit glamorized. They set a precedent on how we should idealistically look, talk and live.”

But people are realizing these lifestyles are lacking something, Song notes. Picnicking, which was popular before glamping became the new craze, can no longer satisfy urges to connect with nature.

Yet she cautiously draws a line between “living wildly” and “living in the wilderness.”

“Some of my friends can just go camping on any mountain with only a backpack. That is too hardcore for me to handle. At least, basic sanitary standards and living conditions shouldn’t be sacrificed,” she says.

The constant appeal of spending time in the wilderness means the glamping fad is likely here to stay, but is expected to drop “to a stable level” after travel restrictions loosen,” notes Cheung.

Among those visiting Saiyuen, around 60% of them are families, who will “still love to take their kids to a little island of adventure locally” during weekends, he adds.

Top image: Hong Kong’s Saiyuen glamping resort is located on the island of Cheung Chau. Credit: Saiyuen