For many Chinese, Harbin conjures images of ice and steel, a city both cold and tough.
But this winter, the heavily industrialized city morphed into a warmly welcoming host, drawing in a record-breaking number of visitors, mainly from China’s south.
During the three-day New Year period from Dec. 30 to Jan. 1, Harbin received more than three million tourist visits, a common tourism measurement in China, bringing in tourism revenues of some 5.914 billion Chinese yuan ($830 million), according to the Harbin Cultural Broadcasting and Tourism Bureau.
Harbin’s winter festivities attracted Shanghai resident Yuying Zhang to the city, she said. But in the end, she said she was more enamored with the residents than the city’s famous ice sculptures.
The day she arrived, Zhang said, she booked a taxi via Didi, a cashless ride-hailing app in China.
“However, after recognizing our southern accents, the driver insisted on giving us the ride for free and even offered to transfer our money back,” Zhang said in Mandarin, as translated by CNBC. “He said he was happy to see so many southern visitors in Harbin.”
Southerners arrive decked out in winter gear to visit Harbin.
Source: Yuying Zhang
Zhang said that even though she declined the driver’s offer, the gesture lifted her spirits and set the tone for the rest of her trip.
In a twist on the Japanese phrase “the customer is God,” Harbin’s governmental website states “the tourist is God,” highlighting how tourists are viewed in the city.
In a letter to residents in December, the city government asked locals to “embrace this overwhelming affection and put our guests first, treating them with the utmost respect and friendliness.”
“Whether it’s carefully guiding them, warmly answering their questions, offering a bowl of ginger tea, or giving them a lift on our way, we can do our utmost to fully showcase the authentic hospitality of Harbin’s people.”
Tourists walking down Harbin’s Central Street on Jan. 9, 2024.
Zhang Tao | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images
She said residents heeded the call. On Harbin’s Central Street, volunteers handed out warm ginger tea, while others wore signs around their necks, offering free travel advice, specifically for tourists from southern China.
Pharmacies sold single doses of medications to travelers, and restaurants served free frozen pears to waiting patrons, cut into pieces, catering to the southern preference for smaller bites.
Restaurants served free frozen pears cut the way southern Chinese prefer to eat them.
Source: Yuying Zhang
The government even laid carpets along Central Street’s underground pedestrian passageways to protect visitors from falling. The move sparked comments on social media, with one local remarking, “My mum said she’s lived in Harbin for 60 years and has never seen this happen before.”
“It seems like all of Harbin’s industries are pivoting towards tourism, making way for visitors at every turn,” Zhang said. “It’s like tourists here are akin to visiting children in someone else’s home, where the host brings out the best snacks for them, while asking their own children to give way.”
Every traveler interviewed by CNBC said social media buzz about Harbin influenced their decision to visit, with many saying the nickname that northern Chinese had given them — “Southern Little Taters” — was additional motivation to travel north.
Tourists from China’s milder southern regions, who tend to be shorter than their northern counterparts, often bundle up in thick jackets, fur-lined hats and big scarves, giving them a potato-like appearance, say locals.
The plump, bundled-up appearance of Harbin tourists, many hailing from southern China, led to locals calling them “Little Southern Taters” — a nickname that was widely discussed on Chinese social media.
Andrea Verdelli | Bloomberg | Getty Images
“When I initially read the term, the words seemed somewhat cold, but when you’re around the [locals] and experience their friendliness, you start to find the nickname ‘Little Tater’ quite cute,” said Zhang.
Tourists new nickname for Harbin — the shorter “Rbin” — has swept across Chinese social media too, representing their newfound affection for the city.
A larger plan to use social media to publicize Harbin and the larger province of Heilongjiang may be at play.
He Jing, head of Heilongjiang Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism, told China Central Television that his department has been focusing on using social media “since the beginning of 2023.”
The opening day of the Harbin Ice and Snow World, a part of the larger festival, on Dec. 18 drew more than 40,000 visitors.
Because of the overwhelming turnout, many of the park’s attractions required queuing for several hours. The most popular attraction giant slide required waiting in line for approximately five to six hours.
Some attendees at Harbin’s 2024 festivities complained about long lines.
Source: Yuetong Jiang
Several visitors expressed their dissatisfaction online, noting the discomfort of waiting in temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius, prompting some to demand refunds for their tickets.
Harbin’s government quickly apologized in a published letter, vowing to improve waiting times, though several travelers told CNBC that long lines are still a problem.
Yuetong Jiang said that during her mid-January visit to the Ice and Snow World park, average waiting times were two to three hours per attraction, with the temperatures fluctuating between 4 and 24 degrees Celsius.
“You can’t even take your hands out of your coat to snap a photo or scroll through your phone because of the extreme cold,” she said.
Harbin Ice and Snow World, at night.
Andrea Verdelli | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Jiang said she was concerned the waiting time may not be worth it, but after her trips she said the time spent in line was justified.
“The wait for the two attractions felt quick in retrospect, and there was a sense of happiness when they ended, as if the memory of queuing had been cast aside,” she said
Zhang, however, was turned off by the long lines she saw online. So she decided to visit a different ice festival in the nearby city of Changchun, in China’s Jilin province.
“I spent roughly 10 minutes in line for the most popular giant slide attraction and ended up going on it three times,” said Zhang.
Following Harbin’s winter tourism explosion, other cities in China are starting to promote their own attractions on social media, with tourism bureau directors and celebrities appearing in online videos to attract visitors.
Wilson Zhou, analyst from Bacui Capital Management, told CNBC, “The demand for traveling among the Chinese people remains high … [but] domestic tourism is now being chosen as a more cost-effective option.”
As China’s upcoming Spring Festival draws near, the surge in travel to Northeast China shows no signs of waning.
Data from Trip.com shows a more than tenfold year-on-year increase to cold weather destinations, with northern cities such as Harbin, Mudanjiang, Changchun and Baishan becoming particularly popular destinations.