Last weekend, China celebrated it’s Golden Week.
It is an eight-day national holiday, one of the busiest annual travel periods, and a major test for the country as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
Photos of the tourist attraction in Beijing last weekend show massive groups of people crammed along the winding wall, pressed together in close quarters, and squeezing past each other through narrow doorways. While the majority are wearing face masks, a number of people, including young kids, pulled their masks down to their chin, and a few seem to have foregone masks entirely.
Since the Spring, China‘s official reported virus numbers have stayed low. There have been a few flare-ups, including a cluster in Beijing in June, but these were met with immediate lockdown measures and mass testing, and the outbreaks were contained within a few weeks.
With close to 0 local transmissions, people went to bus stations, airports, and transit hubs to travel around China for the holiday, which started on October 1. Local authorities competed to attract tourists, with provincial and municipal governments issuing travel vouchers and tourist attractions offering free or discounted tickets.
The Great Wall has prepared up for the rush of tourists as well. The most popular section of the wall — the Badaling section — reopened at the end of March with new restrictions like reserving tickets in advance.
In a notice released on September 29, the Badaling Special Administrative Region Office warned visitors to continue following restrictions during the Golden Week.
These new restrictions include social distancing by keeping one meter (3.3 feet) of the distance between each other. “It is strictly forbidden to gather together,” the notice said. Earlier guidelines on the Great Wall website reminded tourists to wear their face masks throughout their entire visit, and urged them to “obey the guidance and management of the museum staff.”
However, neither of these restrictions were followed this week as bare-faced tourists swarmed together on the wall.
The Badaling section of the Great Wall is notoriously overcrowded with both local and international tourists. It is so popular that officials instituted a cap of 65,000 visitors per day as of June 2019.
Ahead of the Golden Week celebrations, authorities raised that cap to 75% of normal capacity, meaning a daily limit of 48,750 visitors.
According to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, tickets for the Badaling section sold out entirely by early morning on October 3.
The Golden Week holiday — the longest in China along with the Lunar New Year holiday — has traditionally seen middle-class Chinese travel abroad in huge numbers. However, visa restrictions, quarantine requirements, a lack of international flights, and the ongoing danger of Covid-19 this year means that Chinese travelers are looking domestically for travel instead.
According to data from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in just the first four days of the holiday, 425 million domestic tourist trips were taken in the country, generating more than $45 billion in tourism revenue.
“We have seen more tourists this year than in previous years. The number of daily tourists has doubled since we exempted the entrance fee,” said an employee at Wuhan’s Yellow Crane Tower attraction last week, according to state-run media Global Times.
The Golden week relaxed restrictions and flouting of social distancing rules are in stark contrast to the anxiety that overshadowed China’s last major travel period — the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, as the coronavirus outbreak swept through Wuhan.
On January 23, two days before Lunar New Year’s Day, the Chinese government locked down Wuhan — but by then, the virus had already spread across and beyond the country, as hundreds of millions of Chinese people traveled for the holiday.
The sense of imminent danger has largely faded now, said Chen Qianmei, a 29-year-old from the southern city of Guangzhou, who flew to Shanghai last week for the holiday.
“I think China has (the virus) under pretty good control,” she said in a CNN report. “I’m wearing masks and bringing alcohol wipes with me to clean my hands, especially before eating. Although in Shanghai, few people wear masks now.”